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The Winter of Discontent

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Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End was a respectable hobbit who would cheerfully have described himself as middle aged. As such, he was not fond of snow. Oh, it was very beautiful, certainly, draping the soft green hills of the Shire in a blanket of glittering white – beautiful even when falling, the flakes swirling and settling in the lamplight – but apart from that it was a nuisance, and made going about one’s business really rather trying. On this particular Tuesday, for example, it had snowed during the night, and Bilbo had almost called off his plans to go to the market in Bywater for fear of getting cold and wet and generally miserable. But in the end, the day was sunny and bright – almost too bright, the sunlight glancing off the snow, sharp and cold – and Bilbo braved the journey. Nonetheless, he left much later than he had originally intended, and that was entirely the snow’s fault.

It was not entirely the snow’s fault that Bilbo did end up getting rather wet and cold, after all. Partly the snow, certainly, but there would certainly never have been any snow melting down Bilbo’s neck if it had not been for the crowd of unruly youngsters who began an unusually large snowball fight just outside Bywater shortly before dark – as it happened, just at the time that Bilbo was starting for home. Bilbo could remember a time when he might have joined in the fight voluntarily, but that time had been many years ago, before his parents had died. Such activities were for children, and, since he was not particularly fond of children, he tended to keep away from them. Not that children were so very bad, of course – their charming games and their cherubic voices and so on – but he found that both games and voices tended to retain their charm best when kept at a safe distance.

Unfortunately, the snowball fight was not at a safe distance. In fact, it criss-crossed the road from Bywater to Hobbiton, with seemingly every child in the Shire involved, not to mention some of the younger adults, too, so that it was impossible to avoid. Bilbo hurried on his way as quickly as he could, but he nonetheless was hit by not one but three snowballs in the time it took him to traverse the battlefield, and his mood was not at all improved by the delighted giggles of the child who scored a direct hit on the back of his neck. He took careful note of the child’s identity – though in truth it was not easy to tell, given how wrapped up they all were – and planned grimly to inform her mother at the first available opportunity.

In the end, though, Bilbo did not inform the child’s mother, or indeed really remember the snowball fight at all by the following morning. Because something else happened on his way back from Bywater that caused all trivial thoughts and annoyances to be entirely wiped from his mind. He was trudging along, feeling most disagreeable, wet and cold, and angry with himself for having left so late that he would have to walk much of the way back in the dark, when he heard, from the shadowy bushes to the left-hand side of the path, a noise that sounded like a child in pain.

Well, Bilbo might not have been overly fond of children, but he was not, at heart, an uncaring hobbit. Nor was he a particularly brave one, as he would happily tell any and all who might care to ask, and as I’m sure you can imagine, a plaintive noise in the silence of a snowy dusk can sound rather ghostlike, or, at the very least, like it might be made by some wild creature. So Bilbo stood very still, the hairs on the back of his neck rising, and listened. He was in two minds: the first told him that he had heard a bird, or a cat, or maybe nothing at all (or possibly a ghost), and that he should hurry home before he got any colder (or before he happened to see a ghost). The second told him that he could not possibly leave if there was any chance that there was a lost child out there in the freezing darkness. And it was this second part of his mind that won out, despite his quailing heart, for as I have sad, he was not hard-hearted, despite his somewhat curmudgeonly nature.

So he stood listening, and it seemed to him that the whole world held its breath, silent as it can only be on a winter’s night when snow lies thickly on the ground. And then, he heard it again: a breathless whimper, so quiet that had he not been listening so carefully, he might not have heard it at all. But hear it he did, and it certainly was no bird, nor cat either (though some part of his mind insisted that it still might be a ghost). It was a child, a young one at that, and Bilbo immediately gave up on feeling afraid, and concentrated instead on feeling concerned. He moved into the bushes, light-footed and silent – though why he should be so, he was not quite sure. Certainly it would have made sense to call out – but he did not. Perhaps he was simply still a little troubled by the (obviously ridiculous!) notion that something supernatural might be afoot; at any rate, he did not speak, but just crept through the bushes, straining to see in the dark, until he came to a little clearing.

And there he found not one child but two. They were somewhat indistinct in the darkness, one standing and one sitting. The standing one was larger, perhaps ten, bending over the other. The sitting one Bilbo would have guessed from size alone to be six or so, and it was huddled over, breathing in a way that told of some illness of the lungs.

“Sh,” the older one whispered. “Someone will hear you.”

“Ahem,” Bilbo said then, having ascertained that these were definitely not ghosts. “What are you doing hiding out here? It’s getting dark, and you should be getting home to your–”

He never completed his sentence, for the moment the older of the two children heard his voice, he whirled, casting about in the gathering gloom before lighting on Bilbo. There was the sound of sliding metal, then, and the boy was suddenly holding a knife in his hand. A long one, at that – certainly no kitchen knife, but a small sword, designed with only one purpose in mind.

“Get away,” the boy growled, moving so that he was between Bilbo and the smaller child, blocking him completely from view.

Bilbo took a hasty step back, raising his hands in surrender. “Now, now,” he said. “There’s no need for that. I just wanted to see if I could be of some help.”

“Well, you can’t,” the boy said. “Go away.”

Bilbo, who had never once in his life been confronted by someone wielding a sword, let alone a child doing so, turned on his heel to go. But as he did so, the smaller child made a quiet, pained noise, and Bilbo paused, staring into the darkness, listening to the thick sounds of congested breathing behind him. The children were not from Hobbiton, or Bywater, either, and that meant they were a long way from home. Bilbo blinked at nothing, imagining the scene tomorrow if two children were found frozen to death, and how he would feel if that happened. Then he turned back.

“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, “but it sounds like your friend is ill.”

“Don’t talk about him,” the older boy said. “I told you to leave us alone.”

“Indeed you did,” Bilbo said, trying to judge whether to move closer or not. “But I’m afraid I can’t. I’m sure it will snow again tonight, and much as I would love to go back to my warm hobbit hole, I just can’t leave you out here with no shelter, more’s the pity.” He paused. “It’s just up the hill, by the way. My hobbit hole.”

“I don’t care where it is,” said the older boy, but his voice wobbled a little, and Bilbo understood suddenly that he was younger than Bilbo had thought. “We’re fine, go away.”

“Are you sure?” Bilbo asked, and he took a cautious step forwards. The blade, which had been drooping slightly, was suddenly raised again, glinting in the faint moonlight.

“I’ll gut you like a fish,” the boy growled, his voice suddenly deeper and his cadences slightly different, as if he was imitating someone else.

“Oh, dear,” Bilbo said, and if he was honest with himself, he was genuinely frightened. But at the same time, he was concerned, and determined by now to make sure these children found their way home to their parents – though preferably without anyone doing any gutting on the way. “Well, I certainly wouldn’t want that. But now look here. I live just up the hill.” He gestured in the general direction of Bag End. “Just up the hill, you see? I have a nice hobbit hole, with a big fire in the living room, and lots of hot water for baths. You’re obviously quite upset, but I’m sure your parents would be very unhappy to know you were out here all on your own. And your friend really does sound ill. I’m sure a night outside won’t be good for him at all. So why don’t you just come with me? I’m just a hobbit, certainly not dangerous in the least. Why, I don’t think I even own a weapon, unless you count garden implements. Wouldn’t you prefer to be eating dinner in front of the fire rather than out here in the snow?”

The boy just stood there, his little sword raised. He didn’t speak, but the flash of the moonlight from the blade showed that his hands were not very steady, and Bilbo, despite his fear, felt a pang of compassion.

“It seems you have two choices, then,” he said. “You can either trust that I neither wish to hurt you nor am capable of doing so, and come into the warmth; or you can stay out here all night, and quite possibly freeze, or at least get as ill as your friend – but at least you won’t have run the risk of being clouted with a hoe! Now, which is it to be?”

There was silence in the little clearing, except for the wheezing breaths of the smaller boy. And then, at last, the older one straightened up, though he didn’t put away his sword.

“Can you get up?” he murmured to the smaller boy. “Come on. Take my hand.”

The smaller boy struggled to his feet, assisted by the elder, and then they turned to Bilbo, the elder still with his sword in one hand.

“You go first,” he said.

“Well, obviously, since I’m the only one who knows the way,” Bilbo said. He was rather nervous to turn his back on the sword, but at the same time, even he would have a difficult time walking backwards to his hobbit hole, and so he was forced to do so. His neck immediately started prickling, and he set off at a fairly brisk pace, not because he was afraid, but because he was cold (and also a little afraid). He didn’t look behind him until he heard the sound of quiet voices, and turned to see that the smaller boy had fallen in the snow, and the elder was helping him back to his feet. After that, Bilbo moved a little more slowly, but nonetheless, they were only halfway up the hill when he heard a soft thud, and turned to see the smaller boy had fallen again.

The older boy knelt down, now, whispering urgently to the smaller one. But although the little one tried valiantly, he didn’t seem to be able to regain his feet, and at last, the elder stood, glancing from Bilbo to his friend.

“I can carry him, if you want,” Bilbo said, even though really he wished to do nothing of the sort. “If he can’t walk.”

“Don’t come near him,” the older boy growled, and then, apparently having made some kind of decision, he sheathed his sword and bent, gathering the smaller boy into his arms, settling him on his hip. He picked him up with some difficulty, being not a great deal taller than him, though certainly broader in the shoulders. Then he tried to find some way to draw his sword again, but it became quickly clear that he could not manage to hold his friend with only one arm. He stood, silent, breath frosting in the moonlight, clutching his friend to him. And Bilbo decided he wouldn’t offer to help again, but instead would make for Bag End as fast as possible, so as to make all of this easier.

“Come along, then,” he said, and turned, trying at once to be hasty and to be slow enough that the boy, now heavily burdened, would not fall too far behind. And at last, he came to his own front door, and pushed it open, hurrying to take off his wet cloak and go to stoke up the embers of the living room fire. He left the door open behind him, but didn’t wait for the two boys to arrive. Better not to focus too much attention on them, he decided. At least until the older one stopped being so ready with his sword.

Once the fire was again licking up the chimney in bright tongues of flame, Bilbo hastened to set water to heat for a bath, and then went to the hall to see what had happened to his not-particularly-welcome guests. As it turned out, they were both there, the older boy standing in the hallway, still carrying the younger in his arms. The door was still open, and Bilbo, in his haste to shut it, didn’t even remember that he was supposed to be keeping his distance.

“Well, what is the point of having an indoors at all if you’re just going to let the outdoors come inside?” he asked, tutting to himself and sweeping the sprinkling of snow that had drifted in back outside where it belonged. Then he turned, and found himself suddenly confronted with the reality of his young guests. Or rather, his guest. The smaller boy was almost entirely hidden, bundled up in a soaking cloak, only a wisp of dark hair to be seen. But the older, staring unblinkingly at Bilbo, was very much visible. And he was not a hobbit child.

“I’ll be blessed,” Bilbo whispered. The boy was absolutely filthy – in fact, they both were – but nonetheless, it was immediately clear from the breadth of his shoulders, the length of his hair, the heavy boots he wore: this child was no hobbit, nor a man-child. Although Bilbo had never seen one in person, he was immediately sure that this boy could only be a dwarf.

“How did you come to be so far from home?” Bilbo asked, almost without meaning to. The nearest place where dwarves were known to live was Bree, and that was several days’ travel. “Where are your parents?”

The boy just stared at him. His face looked hollow under all the grime, as though he hadn’t been eating well for some time, and he had a rather dazed look in his eyes. Looking more closely, Bilbo saw that his cheeks were a little flushed, and began to suspect that it was not only the younger boy who was ill.

“Well, never mind that,” Bilbo said. “Come, come. The fire is in the living room. I’ll get you some blankets.”

And he hurried off, collecting two blankets from the cupboard, and then, after a moment’s thought and the memory of the soaking wet cloak of the younger boy, collecting two more. When he got back to the living room, he found that the older boy was sitting with the younger one in front of him, propped up against his chest and facing the fire. He’d drawn his sword again and laid it beside him, close at hand. Bilbo eyed it nervously.

“Here, then,” he said, holding out the blankets, and then laying them down within reach. “I’ll make us something to eat.”

And he fled to the kitchen.

When he got back, having made a pot of hearty stew and set it on the stove to cook, he found that the dwarves – he assumed the little one was a dwarf, too, although he’d seen almost nothing of him as yet – were still in front of the fire. The little one was lying down, now, wrapped in all four of the blankets over his soaking cloak, and shivering nonetheless. The older one was still sitting up, shoulders rigid.

“Well, that won’t do,” Bilbo said. The older dwarf turned to look at him, hand creeping towards the hilt of his sword. Bilbo sighed. “He won’t warm up in those wet clothes,” he said. “Neither of you will. Why don’t you have a bath?”

The dwarf scowled at him. “He’s all right,” he said. “He’s getting warm.”

Bilbo sighed again, more heavily this time. How he had gone from looking forward to a nice, hot bath for himself to looking after two ill and rather frightening dwarf children, he had no idea.

“Now, you look here, master dwarf,” he said, advancing towards the fire and doing his best not to flinch when the dwarf brought up his sword. “I understand that you’re frightened, but this is becoming ridiculous.”

“I’m not frightened,” the dwarf said, scowl deepening. “I could kill you in a moment.”

“Hmph,” Bilbo said, pausing in his steps. “Well, you probably could, at that. But I hope you won’t. It would be rather ill-mannered after I invited you into my home.”

The dwarf made no answer to this, watching Bilbo carefully.

“Well, now, not frightened, then,” Bilbo said. “Wary, perhaps. And with good reason, no doubt. But you have nothing to fear from me. You must let me help you, and your friend. You want to look after him, I can see that. Well, this is how you can do it: let me help him. I have no weapons – you can search me yourself, if you’d like.”

The dwarf lad held his gaze, unblinking. Then he heaved himself to his feet and came forward. The smaller boy, curled on the floor, made a murmuring noise of distress, and the elder glanced back at him, then quickly ran his hand over Bilbo’s arms, legs, stomach and waist. When he’d finished, he stood frowning for a moment, then nodded and turned back to the bundle of blankets that concealed his friend.

“He’s been getting worse for days,” he muttered.

Bilbo knelt on the floor, keeping a close eye on the sword. But it wasn’t raised in his direction, and he reached out and began to unwrap the blankets from around the younger child. The boy whimpered and tried to pull them back around himself, and the older dwarf immediately knelt down beside Bilbo, pushing his hands away.

“Sh,” he murmured. “Don’t cry. I’m going to get you warm.”

He peeled off the blankets, facing no further protest from the younger boy, who lay blinking blearily up at him. Another dwarf, indeed, Bilbo saw, this one dark-haired where the elder was fair, but just as gaunt-looking. He shuddered, curling up when the older dwarf tried to remove his sodden cloak, and then coughed a bone-rattling cough, eyes closed tight.

“Sh, sh,” the older dwarf said, stroking his hair. “We’re going to have a bath. That’ll be nice. We haven’t had one for a long time.”

Bilbo got to his feet, feeling a sudden wash of pity for these two children, even if one of them did seem determined to threaten him at every turn. Getting worse for days, the older one had said – who knew how long they had been out in the wilderness on their own?

“I’ll fill the tub,” he said, and hurried off.

By the time the tub was situated in front of the fire and filled with steaming water, the older dwarf had managed to divest the younger of his clothes, and now he sat, shivering and wrapped in a blanket, eyes glazed. Looking at them together, Bilbo suddenly understood that they were not just friends. It was clear, despite their differences in colouring, that they were closely related, most probably brothers. The older dwarf helped the younger to step into the tub, and then reached over to help him wash himself.

“Why don’t you get in, as well?” Bilbo asked. “I’m sure you could do with a hot bath, too.”

The older dwarf looked over at him, then glanced at his sword. Bilbo resisted the urge to throw up his hands.

“All right, how’s this?” he said. “I’ll go into the hall and close the door. It’s big and heavy, you see? So if I open it again, you’ll have plenty of warning, and you’ll be able to get your sword and wave it at me all you like. And in the meantime, you can have a bath. How does that sound?”

The older dwarf swallowed, brow creased in thought. Despite his intense suspicion and troubling level of aggression, Bilbo saw again that he was indeed very young. Young, frightened, and not very well himself.

“I’ll go then,” Bilbo said, hoping to make the decision easier for him. “I’ll see if I can find you something to wear.”

And he scurried off, and closed the door firmly behind him, taking a moment to mourn for the warmth of the fire. But there was a great deal to do if he was to properly accommodate his guests, and so he set fires in the hearths of two of the guest rooms, then went rifling through his wardrobe, looking for something the children might be able to wear. The little one could wear one of Bilbo’s ordinary shirts as a nightshirt, certainly. The older one was more difficult. He was shorter than Bilbo, but Bilbo had the feeling he wouldn’t take kindly to just wearing a shirt. So he found a pair of old trousers, soft with wear and worn through in places, and turned the hems up, stitching them in place with a deft hand. By the time he had finished, he was sure the two dwarves must have got themselves clean, and so he went to the living room door and knocked cautiously.

“Master Dwarf,” he called, “I’ve brought some clean clothes for you to wear.”

There was a silence, and then the heavy door creaked open a crack and the dwarf’s hand appeared. Bilbo handed him the clothes, and he slipped away again, closing the door behind him. Bilbo waited what he thought was a decent amount of time, then knocked again.

“Are you ready?” he called. “I’ll come and get us some food.”

Another silence, and then the door opened again. Bilbo stepped through to find that the two dwarves were back in front of the fire, dressed in their new clothes and much cleaner-looking. The little one was once more barely visible, bundled up in blankets and leaning against his brother’s chest. Bilbo slipped across the room to the kitchen, stirring the stew and then serving it up into two bowls and collecting a plate of bread. He would eat later, he decided, once he’d managed to get his two guests into bed.

Back in the living room, he knelt by the fire a reasonable distance from the dwarves and stretched out, holding the bowls out. The older dwarf eyed them for the briefest moment, and then reached out and snatched them. He rearranged himself and his brother so that they were facing each other, the little one propped up on the side of an armchair. Then he managed to exhume a little hand from in amongst all the blankets and put a spoon in it.

“There’s food,” he murmured. “There’s food, we’ve got food now.”

The little dwarf, though, didn’t seem to understand, staring at his brother with that glazed expression. The older one watched him, face creased in worry.

“Come on,” he whispered, shooting a hunted glance at Bilbo. “You’ve got to eat or you won’t get better.”

He waited another moment, then took the spoon from his brother’s hand and spooned up some stew. “Open your mouth,” he said, and the little one obediently did so. The older dwarf carefully fed him the spoonful of stew, then repeated the process. Bilbo watched, rather fascinated despite himself. How old was the little one, he wondered? He knew so little about dwarves – certainly nothing about how quickly they grew, or how long they lived. Indeed, he would not have recognised these two as being so had he not been sure that there was nothing else they could be. At most, he had heard that dwarves were dangerous, warlike, not to be trusted – although, since hobbits were generally of the opinion that no-one born outside the Shire was to be trusted, perhaps that was not such a useful description. And of course, Bilbo had already discovered, rather to his own discomfort, that even young dwarves could certainly pose a threat. But watching how this dwarf took such great care to make sure his brother was fed, and warm, and safe, even to his own detriment – for certainly he must have been very hungry, too – Bilbo thought perhaps that they were not so wild and savage as the few stories that passed around the Shire made out.

At last, it seemed the little dwarf could eat no more, his head lolling on his chest. And at this point, the older dwarf turned to his own bowl of stew. He had none of the hesitance of the little one, but tore into the food as though he had been starving for days. The bowl was empty before Bilbo had even had time to stop being amazed at the ferocity of the dwarf’s appetite, and then the dwarf picked it up and licked it clean, before finishing off his brother’s food as well.

“Well,” Bilbo said, causing the dwarf to start a little, as if he’d forgotten Bilbo was there. “I suppose you’d like seconds, then?”

The dwarf eyed him silently, then picked up his empty bowl and held it out. Bilbo took it, unsurprised by now at the lack of anything resembling a thank you, and went to the kitchen. He filled it as full as he could without spilling it, collected more bread, and then returned to the living room to find the younger dwarf whispering something to his brother. As soon as he entered, the elder shook his head.

“Sh,” he whispered. “He’s back.”

Bilbo refrained politely from rolling his eyes – as if finding out the little one could talk would somehow cause him to have an advantage over them – and held out the bowl and bread. The older dwarf took them from him, and there followed a repeat of his earlier ravenous performance, perhaps slightly less vehement this time, and then, perhaps not. Partway through, though, he paused, and offered up a piece of bread to his brother. The brother took it and put it in his mouth, but seemed to exhausted or too ill even to really chew, and only eventually swallowed with some effort. The older dwarf then sat in silence for a short spell, watching his brother with a worried frown. Eventually, though, it seemed he decided that, whether his brother would eat more or not, there was no sense the food going to waste, and so he polished off the rest and sat, empty bowl clutched to his chest, watching Bilbo with eyes that looked dark in the firelight.

“I think perhaps your friend needs to go to bed,” Bilbo said, for now that he had discharged what he considered his most important duties of offering food and warmth, he was eager to remove these strange dwarf children from his immediate vicinity as quickly as possible. “I’ve plenty of space. I can take him, if you want.”

The offer was barely out of his mouth when the older dwarf had set down his bowl with a clatter and shifted closer to his brother, putting one arm around him and groping for his sword with the other. Bilbo raised his hands hastily.

“Or not,” he squeaked. “Not is perfectly acceptable, as well.”

The older dwarf blinked at him, as though he was having some difficulty keeping his own eyes open. The younger had clearly already fallen asleep, leaning heavily now on his brother.

“Why don’t I show you?” Bilbo asked. “The beds are soft, and there are clean sheets and plenty of blankets.”

The older dwarf considered this for a moment, then slowly got to his feet, lifting the younger and settling him on his hip. He was really not tall enough to carry even such a small burden, and Bilbo marvelled that he had managed to carry his brother all the way up the hill to the hobbit hole. But it was clear he would accept no assistance, and so Bilbo took up a lamp and led the way.

When he came to the guest rooms he had opened up for the two dwarves, he pointed.

“You can put him in here,” he said, “and you can go next door.”

The dwarf immediately shook his head, clutching his brother closer. “I’m going with him,” he said.

“Hm,” Bilbo said. He hadn’t considered this possibility, although of course it now seemed obvious that the dwarf would not be separated from his brother. “Well, I think the bed is big enough. But the more you stay with him, the more likely you are to catch his illness.”

As if in warning, the younger dwarf launched into a series of painful-sounding coughs. But these only caused the elder to hold him closer still. “I’m going with him,” he said again, voice shaking but face full of stubborn determination.

“Oh, well, if you must,” Bilbo said. He ushered the two dwarves into the larger of the guest rooms, and the elder dwarf quickly set about making his brother comfortable in the bed before turning and staring at Bilbo.

“I’ll be going then, shall I?” Bilbo said, and, when no answer was forthcoming, “My name is Bilbo, by the way.”

The dwarf nodded minutely, but made no other sign that he’d heard, and certainly none that he had any interest in telling Bilbo his name in return. Bilbo sighed.

“Well, good night,” he said, perhaps rather snappishly, and slipped out of the room, closing the door firmly behind him. He stood in the hall for a moment, wondering how on earth the day had turned out so unexpectedly. Two children – dwarves! – beneath his roof, one of them too ill to talk and the other too suspicious. It was all very vexing, to be sure.

But at least they were in bed, and as long as the older one didn’t decide to cut his throat in the night out of pure spite, Bilbo supposed that everybody was safe for the time being. So he pattered back down the hall, and spent some time in the living room in glorious solitude, eating his dinner and trying to read his book. He found himself quite distracted, though, and jumping at every little noise, and so eventually he decided perhaps he ought to go to bed, too.

Sleep was long in coming that night, Bilbo tossing and turning and wondering where the dwarves had come from, where they were going, and how they had come to be in such poor states of health (and, perhaps most importantly, when he would be able to get rid of them). But at last, long after midnight, he drifted off, and dreamed of whirling snow and flashing knives, until it was almost a relief to be woken by an insistent knock at his bedroom door not many hours later.

He groaned, rubbing the sleep from his eyes, and climbed out of bed, lighting his lamp with fumbling fingers. The knocking came again, urgent-sounding, and Bilbo yawned.

“Yes, all right,” he said. “There’s no need to make such a fuss.”

He threw open the door, and found the older dwarf child on the other side, looking dishevelled and very worried.

“Mister, help,” he said. “He’s getting worse.”

Chapter Text

Bilbo followed the older dwarf through the hall and into the room he had assigned to his guests. A candle was guttering on the little table beside the bed, throwing a flickering light across the little dwarf, who was tangled in the bedclothes, his dark hair spread across the pillow. His eyes were tightly closed, but he didn’t seem to be sleeping peacefully, if indeed he was sleeping at all. On the contrary, his face was screwed up in pain or effort, his hair damp with sweat and clinging to his forehead, and his breath rattled and cracked in his throat in a way that made Bilbo’s stomach lurch.

“Oh,” he murmured. He had hoped the little one had a bad cold, or something else similar – unpleasant, but easily cured with rest and lots of hot tea. But this was clearly something much worse, and what was more, it was something that Bilbo was not at all equipped to help with.

The older dwarf glanced back at him, eyes wide. “You’ve got to do something,” he said. “He’s really ill.”

Bilbo found himself momentarily speechless. Why on earth should this dwarf child, who had treated him with nothing but suspicion since they first met, suddenly believe that he could magically cure his ailing brother? It was puzzling, not to mention vexing.

“Well–” he said, trying to remember the sorts of things that his mother and father had used to do for him when he was ill as a child. It was all so long ago, and he had really so little experience of illness since then, in himself or in others. He leaned forward, reaching to put his hand on the little dwarf’s forehead, but was thwarted by the older dwarf suddenly stepping in his way.

“Don’t touch him,” he snapped.

Bilbo stood back, his worry and helplessness temporarily buried under a flood of exasperation. “Well, really, master dwarf,” he said. “How do you expect that I should help him if you won’t even let me near him? That is quite ridiculous!” Never mind, of course, that Bilbo had not the first clue how to help the little dwarf – at least for the time being, he had something else he could focus on.

The older dwarf scowled at him, but although most of his expression conveyed nothing but fury, something in it seemed not quite right – his eyes too wide, a little too bright in the lamplight.

“Let me past,” Bilbo said, but a little more kindly now. “I just want to see how he is.”

The older dwarf swallowed, then stepped aside, though he watched Bilbo intently as he reached out to lay his hand on the little one’s forehead. It was hot to the touch, and the little one moaned and half-opened his eyes.

“Mama,” he whispered, and Bilbo felt a rather unpleasant pain in his chest.

“There, now,” he said, trying not to concentrate too closely on the painful sound of the child’s breathing. “There, there.” But he was quite sure that a few words of comfort, even if they had been much less awkward than his own, would do very little to help the lad. This was far beyond Bilbo’s abilities to heal, which mostly stretched to the provision of handkerchiefs and hot tea with honey.

“Aren’t you going to do anything?” the older dwarf demanded, and Bilbo turned to find him glaring, as though Bilbo had the key to healing the illness in his pocket and was just refusing to use it.

“I’m not sure what it is you expect me to do,” Bilbo said. “I shall have to go for a healer. There’s one who lives just down the hill, I’m sure she will come.”

The older dwarf frowned and took a step towards the bed, groping for his brother’s hand while still eyeing Bilbo suspiciously. “Who is she?” he asked. “I don’t want anyone else here.”

“For goodness’ sake,” Bilbo said, and then sighed. “I can’t help your friend,” he said. “I don’t have the skills, or the knowledge. He needs a healer. I’m sorry, that’s all I have to offer.”

The older dwarf scowled at him, but at that moment his brother drew in a rattling breath and launched into a series of deep, hoarse coughs that had Bilbo’s eyes watering in sympathy. The older dwarf immediately turned his attention entirely away from Bilbo, reaching out and putting his hand on the younger one’s chest.

“Sh, sh,” he murmured. “It’s all right. I’ll make you better.” His voice was calm and even, with only the smallest hint of unsteadiness, but when he turned back to Bilbo, his face was twisted with worry.

“She’ll help?” he said. “She’ll give him a potion? Do you know her and is she–” He paused, frowning like he couldn’t quite remember the right word. “–a good person?”

“Well, as to the last, certainly,” Bilbo said. “A trifle over-sombre at times, but a good woman, yes, indeed. As to the first, I have no doubt she will do her best, though I don’t know enough about your friend’s illness to know if she will be able to heal him or not.”

The older dwarf’s face grew furious again at this last, and Bilbo hastened to correct himself. “I’m sure she will,” he said. “She is a very good healer – the best in Hobbiton, if not the whole of the Shire.”

This did not seem to reassure the dwarf much, if at all, but his brother made a breathless sound of pain, and he suddenly nodded his head.

“All right,” he said. “All right. But if she does anything to him I’ll–” He seemed to run out of words, and reached for his sword where it lay on the dresser. He looked exhausted, pale and thin, with the lamplight casting sharp shadows in the hollows of his cheeks, and Bilbo wondered that he even had the strength still to lift the weapon.

“I’ll be sure to inform her,” he said, then, in order to stave off any more sword-waving and gruesome threats, he took up a lamp and made his way back to his room, dressing hastily before departing into the night.

Outside, the air was so cold it stole the breath from Bilbo’s lungs. The stars glittered high above, not friendly and sparkling as they are on warm summer nights, but sharp and cruel even in their extraordinary beauty. The lamplight, warm and yellow, seemed to have little power against the blue glimmer of the snow, and despite his warm coat and trousers, Bilbo felt a chill creep immediately into his very heart.

“Hurry, then,” he muttered to himself. And hurry he did: down the hill, through the thick snow that had fallen since the evening and left the world strange and featureless. Along the slope to the left, past three front doors half-buried in snow, with no lights behind them where hobbits slept snug and warm and had no notion of the ailing dwarf child only a hundred yards away. And at last, to a red door set off a little by itself, where Lily Bolger lived with her elderly father.

“Hello?” Bilbo called, knocking at the door and then ringing the brass bell that hung beside it. “Hello? Lily?” He waited, then rang and knocked again. Inside, he heard the faint sounds of movement, and, hopping from one foot to the other to keep warm, he occupied himself by sweeping away the snow that had built up against the door – and not a moment too soon, for he had only just completed this task when the door opened and Lily Bolger herself looked out, sleepy-eyed and shivering in her dressing gown.

“What’s this?” she said. “Bilbo Baggins, in the middle of the night?”

“Yes, yes, I am sorry for the late hour,” Bilbo said. “I’m afraid it’s something of an emergency. I have an ailing child in my hobbit hole and I rather think he is very ill indeed.”

“A child?” Lily said. “How have you come by a child?”

“Would you believe I found him by the side of the road?” Bilbo asked.

Lily rather looked as though she wouldn’t, but Bilbo was tired and cold and had precious little patience left for niceties. “Well, whether you would believe it or not, it is true,” he said. “And now I fear he is dangerously ill, and I wish you might come with me rather than interrogating me on your doorstep.”

Perhaps this was not the most polite way to ask for help, but it nonetheless proved effective. Lily tightened her dressing gown around herself and nodded smartly. “What kind of illness is it?” she asked. “I will need to collect the right herbs.”

“Something in his chest, interfering with his breathing,” Bilbo said. “And he is hot with fever. I’m afraid that’s the best description I can give.”

“Come in, then,” Lily said, and stepped back from the door. “Give me a few moments.”

She hurried away, and indeed, it was only a few moments before she was back, looking dishevelled but dressed, and with a basket over her arm. She followed Bilbo out into the snow, and although uphill was more difficult than down, they were able to follow the tracks Bilbo had left easily enough and save themselves some trouble that way. Even so, the snow was slippery, light and powdery, and by the time they reached Bag End they were both panting with the exertion and the cold. The warmth inside felt almost painful on Bilbo’s cheeks, and he quickly divested himself of his outer clothing and ushered Lily through to the guest bedroom.

All was as it had been before – the little dwarf lying tangled up in blankets, his rasping breath drowning out the crackling of the fire. The older one standing beside the bed, clutching the younger one’s hand in his and turning sharply towards the door when it opened.

“Here we are,” Bilbo said, trying to sound, if not cheerful, then at least brisk and efficient. “How is he?”

The older dwarf fixed his eyes on Lily. “He can’t breathe,” he said. “Who are you?”

“A fine greeting, how very charming,” Lily said, and then frowned. “Bilbo – but can it be? This one looks like a –” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “A dwarf.”

“Well, yes, they both are, or so I believe,” Bilbo said.

“We are,” the older dwarf said, drawing himself up. “We’re dwarves, and that means you’d better be careful, because dwarves are the mightiest race on Middle Earth.”

Bilbo, witnessing this diminutive, exhausted child declare himself so very mighty, had to fight down an inappropriate urge to laugh. Indeed, he might not even have restrained himself, had not he been sure that puncturing the dwarf child’s dignity at this moment might lead to more sword-waving and pointless beating about the bush.

“Oh, indeed, very mighty,” he said. “But now, Lily, I hope you can help?”

Lily gave him a doubtful look. “I can’t say that I know much about dwarves,” she said. “I do wish you had told me earlier.” But nonetheless, she stepped forward and leaned over the bed, pressing her ear against the little dwarf’s chest. The older one watched her intently, fingering the hilt of his little sword with one hand, but didn’t try to get in her way – perhaps he had learned his lesson at last.

“Hm,” Lily said, and reached to pull open the little dwarf’s eyelids. The little dwarf whimpered and tried to struggle away, and Lily grasped him by the shoulder with one hand and held him still.

“No,” the little dwarf whispered. “No, no, it hurts.”

“Hey,” the older dwarf said then. “What are you doing? You’re hurting him.” He shouldered Lily aside – although Bilbo suspected that it was only the element of surprise that allowed him to do so, because Lily was rather stout and the dwarf’s movements seemed sluggish and weak.

“Well, I never,” Lily said, drawing herself up. “Now look here, master dwarf. What kind of behaviour is that, when I’m only trying to help your friend?”

“You were hurting him,” the older dwarf said stubbornly, though he didn’t look quite as sure of himself as he had earlier.

“Let me tell you what’s hurting him,” Lily said. “He has lung fever – has had it for some while, by the state of him – and he needs care and medicine. And he’s not going to get that if you keep getting in my way, now, is he?”

The older dwarf frowned up at her, eyes too bright in the dim light. Lily frowned back, and then crouched down in front of him.

“And what about you?” she said. “Not well either, I see.”

“I’m fine,” the dwarf said. “I’m looking after him.”

Lily’s face softened a little. “So I see,” she said. “But maybe you should let me look after him now. He shouldn’t be around ill people when he is already so ill himself.”

Unfortunately, it seemed it was quite the wrong thing to say. The dwarf drew himself up, pulling out his sword again.

“I’m looking after him,” he said, voice rough, but with a high note in it that sounded faintly hysterical. “I’m not leaving him with you. We don’t need you. We don’t need anyone.”

Bilbo sighed in frustration, but Lily only got to her feet and dusted herself off.

“I see,” she said. “Well, in that case, I suppose I shall be going.”
The older dwarf’s eyes widened. “But you’re supposed to help him,” he said. “He said you were a healer.” He pointed his sword at Bilbo, rather more aggressively than Bilbo liked, even given that there was a good three paces of space between them.

“Oh, so you want me to heal him now, do you?” Lily asked, raising one eyebrow.

At that moment, the little dwarf curled around himself on the bed, making a sort of sobbing noise and squeezing his eyes tight shut. The older dwarf looked at him sharply, and then back at Lily, and all the anger was gone from his face, now, leaving only a desperate fear and confusion that twisted Bilbo’s heart to behold it.

“Yes, help him,” he said. “You’ve got to help him.”

Lily nodded. “If you say so,” she said. She opened her basket and took out a small glass bottle, uncorking it and holding it out to the older dwarf. “Now, I need you to help me first,” she said. “That needs to steep a little before I can use it. When it’s ready, it will smell of violets, and then I must use it immediately. So you must keep sniffing it until you smell violets, and then tell me straight away. Do you understand?”

The dwarf hesitated, then laid his sword down and took the bottle. He sniffed it and made a face.

“It smells awful,” he said.

“It’s not ready yet,” Lily said. “Sit down, out of my way.” She pulled a chair over from the other side of the room and placed it next to the bed, where the dwarf could sit and keep hold of his brother’s hand. The dwarf obediently sat, sniffing the potion again, and Lily took a small pot and a cloth from her basket and began to make a poultice. She glanced every now and then at the older dwarf, but Bilbo’s attention was more drawn to the younger, whose breath seemed to be coming with even more difficulty than it had before. So it was that he didn’t realise the older dwarf had fallen asleep until his sword dropped to the floor with a clatter, startling Bilbo, but not, apparently, having the same effect on Lily, who simply darted forward and grabbed her little bottle before it could slip from the sleeping dwarf’s fingers.

“Good,” she said, and recorked the bottle. “Now, then, Bilbo, is there somewhere we can keep this one until he’s better enough not to be a threat to the other?”

“I beg your pardon?” Bilbo said. “Keep him?”

“Keep him, indeed,” Lily said, looking a little impatient. “Having gone to all the trouble of sending him to sleep, I would rather not simply have him wake up and begin causing trouble all over again.”

Bilbo suddenly understood what had been in the little bottle – or at least, understood the effect it had had. “Oh,” he said, and then, “Oh. Well – well, I suppose we can put him in the bedroom next door. I’ve already made it up, since I thought the two of them would be sleeping in different rooms.”

“Does it have a lock on the door?” Lily asked.

“It does, although I have no idea where the key is,” Bilbo said. “But why should it need one?”

Lily looked at him as though he had said something particularly stupid. “My dear Bilbo,” she said. “This dwarf,” pointing at the little one, “is very ill. And that one is coming down with something. Perhaps just a cold, but even a cold could finish this one off, were he to catch it. They must be separated, for their own good.”

“But to lock him up?” Bilbo said. “It seems rather rude, don’t you think?”

“And do you think you will be able to keep him away with reason and common sense?” Lily asked. “They are dwarves, after all. You cannot expect them to be rational like a hobbit might be.”

Bilbo had to admit that, with everything he had seen of the older dwarf’s behaviour since they had met, he did doubt somewhat that he could be easily persuaded to stay away from his brother. All the same, he felt rather guilty as he bent and lifted him into his arms – or tried to, for, despite being significantly shorter than Bilbo as well as rather thin, the older dwarf turned out to be remarkably heavy. Eventually, Bilbo had to settle for carrying him over one shoulder, and glad he was indeed to lay him down in the bed next door.

“I am sorry to be so rude,” he said. “It is for your own good, you know.”

The dwarf did not reply, but only continued to slumber. Bilbo sighed and pulled a blanket up over him, then attended to the fire.

“Hopefully you will be better soon, you and your brother both,” he said. And then you can get out of my hobbit hole and leave me in peace.

Bilbo spent the next ten minutes or so searching for the key to the guest room door. Once he had found it, and locked his guest in – though not without misgivings and trying very hard not to imagine what his mother would say – he returned to the room where the little dwarf lay abed, still wheezing and gasping, though now with a poultice on his chest and a bottle of some kind of medicine by his bed.

“How is he?” Bilbo asked, hoping that perhaps it was not so bad, after all.

“Very poorly, I’m afraid,” Lily said. “He needs one spoonful of this every three hours, and his poultice changing when it dries out. Tomorrow I will gather some particular ingredients for a tincture which I hope will help him, although in truth I do not know if it will work well on a dwarf. In the meantime, he needs to rest and be quiet.”

“But he will recover?” Bilbo asked. “He was walking on his own only last night, he cannot be so very ill, surely?”

“I won’t make you any promises, Bilbo,” Lily said. “Lung fever is nothing to be trifled with. But there – perhaps dwarves do not take on so badly as hobbits when it strikes.”

“I’m sure that must be true,” Bilbo said – for after all, dwarves lived out in the wilderness and cold all the time, didn’t they? Certainly they must be very hardy. Yes, indeed, he was sure there was no chance at all that the little one would die.

And Bilbo very carefully did not think about how the older one might react if he did.

****

Once Lily had gone, Bilbo was at a loss for what to do next. The little dwarf would need his medicine again in scarcely more than two hours, and, despite Bilbo’s interrupted night, he felt sure that he would not be able to sleep even if he went back to bed. What was more, the idea of leaving the dwarf-child alone when he was struggling simply to draw breath was – well, cruel might not be quite the right word, but it was certainly not far off. So, after some dithering, he sat down in the chair beside the bed and commenced a concentrated bout of worrying.

The medicine – or perhaps the poultice – seemed to have had a soporific effect on the little dwarf, though his sleep was fitful indeed, and could hardly have been restful when even the simple act of breathing was requiring such a great effort. Bilbo sat and watched him strain for breath for perhaps half an hour, and then found he could bear it no longer. He went to the living room and investigated his bookshelves until he found a book he thought suitable for a child, then returned and settled himself back in the chair.

“Now, then,” he said to the sleeping dwarf. “I have a story to tell you. Would you like that? Of course you would. Children love stories, do they not?” He had always loved stories as a child, anyway, and he assumed that what was true of him was likely to be true of other children – though when it came to dwarves, he was not so sure. “Listen, then,” he said. “Once upon a time...”

Although the little dwarf was not awake to hear the story, the sound of Bilbo speaking helped to drown out the unpleasant rasping of his breath, and the concentration it required to read helped him to think less about the difficulties of the situation. So he read on, and was even finding himself quite involved in the story, when the little dwarf was suddenly gripped by a violent coughing fit. The coughing continued for far too long, a painful, desperate hacking that quite twisted Bilbo’s heart to hear it, interspersed with wheezing gasps for breath. And Bilbo sat by, helpless to do anything but watch, the distracting powers of his book quite useless now.

At last, the coughing subsided, but immediately the little dwarf began to cry. This was no noisy weeping – it seemed the poor little creature had barely the energy left to open his eyes, let alone to make a serious fuss – but nonetheless the soft sobbing brought tears of sympathy to Bilbo’s eyes.

“Mama,” the little dwarf moaned. “Mama, mama.”

“Oh,” Bilbo whispered. He leaned forward, taking up the little dwarf’s hand in his own. “Well, I am not your mama. I am so sorry, she is not here. But I am here, and I will do the best I can for you. You must be brave.”

The dwarf’s hand felt sweaty against Bilbo’s palm, and his fingers twitched, over and over. His eyes were half-open, but glazed, and a sheen of sweat stood out on his forehead.

“Fili,” he said. “Where’s mama?”

Bilbo frowned at him. “Fili,” he said. “Who is that? Is that your friend’s name?”

The child just stared at him blankly, heaving in a painful-sounding breath. “Where’s mama?” he whispered.

“I don’t know where she is,” Bilbo said. “I’m terribly sorry.”

The dwarf started to cry again. “She can’t find us,” he gasped. “She can’t find us. Fili, I’m cold.”

Bilbo leaned forward, laying a hand on the little dwarf’s forehead. It was burning to the touch, and Bilbo shook his head and took up the cloth that Lily had left beside the bed, soaking it in the bowl of water that lay beside it and then pressing it to the little dwarf’s brow. The dwarf moaned, closing his eyes and writhing weakly.

“No, no,” he whimpered. “I’m cold, I’m cold.”

“Oh,” Bilbo murmured, mostly to himself. “What am I to do?”

What did one do with child so ill he was not in his right mind, who did not realise that Bilbo was a stranger and that his mother was far away? A child in such pain, but with none of his loved ones nearby to comfort him?

The little dwarf chose that moment to be seized with another prolonged attack of coughing, and he curled around himself in the bed, tears standing in his eyes, face twisted as he coughed and gasped and tried desperately to breathe. And Bilbo, at that moment, saw that there was only one thing to do: he climbed up onto the bed and took the little dwarf in his arms, drawing him in and propping him up against his chest, supporting him as he bent double and coughed his hoarse, deep cough.

“There, there,” Bilbo said, for want of anything better to say. “There, there.”

When, at last, the coughing fit passed, the little dwarf fell back against Bilbo’s chest, exhaustion clear in every line of his face. Bilbo, heart thumping painfully against his ribs, smiled at him as best he could.

“Better now?” he asked. “It must be time for your medicine, anyway.”

He managed, with some difficulty, to pour out a spoonful of the medicine without dislodging the little dwarf. “Open wide,” he said, and the dwarf opened his mouth obediently, eyes glazed. He swallowed the medicine with a grimace, and Bilbo set down the spoon and picked up the wet cloth to lay on his forehead again.

“Mm,” the child murmured, closing his eyes. “When are we going home?”

Bilbo swallowed a sigh.

“Soon, I’m sure,” he said. “Very soon.”

Chapter Text

It was a long, unpleasant night. The little dwarf’s condition did not deteriorate, but it did not improve, either, and Bilbo began to dread each indrawn breath, so painful was it to listen to after a while. But of course, much more than that he dreaded the idea that there might be no indrawn breath, that the child might simply give up, for if it was such a difficult process for Bilbo, who only had to listen to it, how much more difficult must it have been to undergo it? And just a child, at that. Why, it was enough to bring tears to Bilbo’s eyes.

At first, he tried to make conversation, to distract the little dwarf. He asked him some questions, but it soon became clear that the little dwarf could not really understand him, and had no sense of where he was and who he was with. Then Bilbo tried reading from his book, but it was awkward to try and hold it and keep the little dwarf propped up against him at the same time, so at last he simply settled for making soothing sounds and talking quietly about nothing at all. Whether it helped the little dwarf or not, Bilbo didn’t know, but it certainly helped him, and so he kept on doing it.

At last, an hour or so before daybreak, Bilbo drifted into a fitful doze. The child was sleeping again now, though with little peace, so it seemed, and since he was leaning right up against Bilbo’s chest, Bilbo felt sure that he would immediately wake if anything changed. As a precaution, he laid one hand on the child’s chest, feeling the rattle and crack of indrawn breath through the contact.

In the end, though, it was not a change in the little dwarf’s condition that woke Bilbo. It was, instead, a heavy thud, sharp and loud enough that he woke immediately. He frowned, looking around the room to see if he could discern the cause. The room was empty but for Bilbo and the little dwarf, and outside the window, the silvery light of a snowy day was beginning to grow, but there was no sign of anyone or anything to disturb the peace.

And then: thud.

Bilbo sat up straight. The noise was coming from inside the hobbit hole. From the room next door, in fact. The room where he had left the older dwarf child sleeping.

Oh.

Bilbo hastily disentangled himself from the little dwarf and laid him carefully down on a stack of pillows. The little dwarf half-woke, mumbling something in a tone of distress and reaching out for Bilbo, but another thud echoed through the hobbit hole, and Bilbo knew that something had to be done, and quickly at that.

“I’m sorry,” he said to the little dwarf. “I’ll be back soon, I promise.”

Whether the little dwarf heard him – and whether he understood if he did – Bilbo did not know, but he wasted no time in wondering. He hastened out of the room into the hall, and then stood outside the heavy oak door of the second guest room, wondering what to do next. The obvious thing would be to open the door, but Bilbo suddenly became rather afraid of what the young dwarf inside might do to him if he did. True, he had been separated from his sword, which Bilbo had locked in the pantry for want of anything better to do with it, but who knew how much damage he might cause with his fists alone?

As if in answer, a rattling thud sounded, something colliding with the other side of the door at high speed.

“Oh, bother,” Bilbo muttered.

He laid his hand on the key, and then took it off again. No – better not to unlock it yet, just in case.

Thud. Hard enough to rattle the hinges this time, despite the weight and thickness of the door.

“Master dwarf, please,” Bilbo called. “You’ll do yourself an injury.”

There was a silence, then – but not a peaceful kind of silence. Rather, it was a silence that seemed to be brimming with rage and threat, so much so that the hairs on the nape of Bilbo’s neck began to stand on end.

And then, all of a sudden, there was a violent hammering on the door. The dwarf must have been pummelling it with both fists at once, so rapid and sustained was it. Bilbo jumped half out of his skin, and became very glad that he had not simply unlocked the door.

“Master dwarf,” he called, his voice a little higher-pitched than usual. “Master dwarf, you must please try to calm down.”

“What have you done to my brother?” came the reply, bellowed out at an impressive volume. Bilbo barely paused to note that his surmise about the relationship of the two dwarves had been proven correct. After all, he had some rather more pressing concerns.

“I haven’t done anything to him,” he called. “He is just where he was when last you saw him: ill, and in bed.”

This announcement precipitated another volley of blows against the door.

“You’re lying,” the young dwarf howled. “You’re lying, you’re lying, you’ve taken him. You can’t take him, he’s mine! I’m looking after him!”

There was a note of desperation in the dwarf’s voice that penetrated even through the thick wood of the door, and Bilbo suddenly felt sorry indeed for having locked him in and left him to wake up alone, even if he had had a good reason for it. Wherever these dwarves had come from and whatever had happened to them, it had affected them – or at least the older one – very badly indeed.

“Please,” Bilbo called through the door. “Please, master dwarf, please listen to me. I know you think I’m lying, but I assure you I am not. Your brother is very ill – you saw that last night. But you are ill, too. You are ill, and although your illness is most likely nothing very serious, if your brother were to catch it in his weakened state, it could be very serious indeed for him. He might even die of it. That is why I separated you, and not for any other reason. Why, I can think of no reason at all why I might want to harm your brother.”

There was a pause. Then the young dwarf spoke again, pounding against the door for emphasis.

“I don’t believe you,” he called. “I don’t know who you are. I want to see my brother.”

“Well, as to who I am, I told you last night,” Bilbo called. “I am Mr Bilbo Baggins, of The Shire. And you have still not told me who you are, so I think you can hardly complain.”

There was a crash from the other side of the door, and Bilbo came to the conclusion that trying to contradict any of this young dwarf’s complaints would do no good at all, no matter how unreasonable they were.

“All right, all right,” he called. “Well, if you refuse to be sensible about it, I can show you your brother. You will see that he is in no worse a state than he was yesterday – though no better, either. But you must stay well away from him, do you understand? You must not make him more ill.”

There was a long pause, then the dwarf’s voice came again.

“I promise.”

“Good,” Bilbo said. “I’m glad you are seeing sense.” All the same, he felt a fluttering of unease in his stomach as he unlocked the heavy door. And not without reason, as it turned out: as soon as he turned the handle, the door flew open, and the dwarf came barrelling out, bent a little at the waist so that his full weight collided with Bilbo’s stomach and legs. Bilbo found himself crashing to the floor, gasping for breath. There was a thundering sound in his head, but as he recovered from his shock and struggled to his feet, he realised that it wasn’t in his head, after all. It was the sound of the dwarf’s feet against the floor as he raced for the room where his brother lay.

“Oh no you don’t,” Bilbo gasped, scrambling to his feet and launching himself after the dwarf. Thankfully, the dwarf seemed a little disoriented, and had run towards the living room first. Now, though, he was sprinting back along the hall, and Bilbo took a deep breath – so far as he was able, still winded as he was – and ran to meet him, bending low and grabbing hold of his arm. The impact left them both unbalanced, and Bilbo skidded round in a half-circle, until he was between the dwarf and the closed door of his brother’s room.

“No, no, master dwarf,” he said. “Did you not listen to a word I said?”

The dwarf growled at him – a terrifying growl, despite the small size of the creature that had produced it, and Bilbo’s hair stood on end for the second time that day.

“Let me past,” he snarled. “I’ll kill you where you stand.”

Bilbo’s heart quailed within him, but he stood firm. Here was a child – a violent, frightening child, but a child no less – hair in disarray, eyes red with weeping, and sickening with something to boot. And behind the door, another child, who was relying on Bilbo to keep him from death’s door. And so he stood firm, despite his fear, and did his best to glare right back.

“Master dwarf,” he said sharply, “you will kill your brother. If you go in there, you will kill him.”

The dwarf blanched, but his expression remained furious. “You’re just saying that to keep me away from him,” he said. “You want him for yourself.”

“For pity’s sake!” Bilbo said. “I do not want either of you, and that’s the truth of it! If I could send you both away in this very moment, I would do so. But I can’t, don’t you see? If I sent you out there now, your brother would surely die in short order, and I doubt you would be far behind him. And how could I possibly let two children die, even difficult children such as yourselves, if I have the means to prevent it? Why, it would be most impolite!”

The dwarf stared at him, his expression still stormy, but now with an edge of confusion to it, as well.

“Why did you bring us here, if you didn’t want to?” he asked.

“Because–” Bilbo said. “Because I didn’t think you would survive if I left you outside. I could not, in all good conscience, leave the two of you to die. Just as I cannot in all good conscience let you near your brother, in case he should catch your illness. How would I ever sleep through the night again?”

The dwarf’s face darkened. “I’m not ill,” he said. And promptly sneezed, twice in succession.

“No, indeed,” Bilbo said. “I see you are the picture of health.”

The dwarf scowled at him. “I want to see my brother,” he said. “You can’t keep me away from him. I’m looking after him.”

Bilbo sighed. “Has it occurred to you that the best thing you can do to look after him at present is to stay away from him?” he asked.

This did not seem to go over particularly well. “Why should I believe you?” the dwarf asked.

And, if he was honest with himself, Bilbo couldn’t think of a reason that he hadn’t already given. He had taken these two dwarf children in, given them food and shelter and medicine, and this seemed to have had next to no effect on the older one’s suspicions. There was only one thing left that Bilbo could think of to do.

“I will show you that he’s perfectly all right,” he said. “Well – no, I should not say perfectly, for he is still very ill, as he was last night. But I have done nothing to him except to give him medicine and try to make him better. I will show you, master dwarf, but you must stay out of the room, to keep him away from your illness. Can you do that?”

The dwarf did not stop scowling. “Show me,” he said.

“Very well,” Bilbo said. “But remember what I have said to you and do please try to be sensible.” He stepped back a little and opened the door to the little dwarf’s room. He did not step entirely out of the way, though he harboured few illusions as to his ability to prevent the older dwarf from getting past him if he was determined. “There,” he said.

Inside, the room was full of pale light, and the little dwarf lay propped up on the pillows, just as Bilbo had left him. He struggled to breathe, just as he had all night, but he appeared to still be asleep – which, given the amount of noise Bilbo and the older dwarf had been making, could only be testament to how exhausted he was. The fire was dying down, and Bilbo told himself that he would have to see to it as soon as he had set the older dwarf’s mind to rest.

The older dwarf peered in through the doorway, then took a step forward. Bilbo put a hand out – not trying to grab him or do any kind of violence, but only as a warning.

“And how will you feel if he catches your cold?” he asked.

The older dwarf gave him an angry look, but Bilbo did not miss the fear in his eyes. “What am I supposed to do?” he asked. “I can’t just leave him all on his own. He gets scared.”

Bilbo privately thought that the little dwarf was not the only one who was scared of being left alone. But he said nothing about it. “He is not on his own,” he said. “I will stay with him, I promise. I will make sure he gets his medicine and I will do everything I can to make him better.”

“What about that woman?” the older dwarf asked. “You said she was a healer. Where’s she? Why isn’t she helping him?”

“She has gone to find some ingredients for a special tincture,” Bilbo said. “She will be back soon, I’m sure. We are all doing our very best to help him, you see.”

The dwarf frowned, wiping his nose on his sleeve and staring in at his brother. He looked up at Bilbo, and then around at the hall, and back in at his brother, as though he could not quite decide what to do.

“He’s not warm enough,” he said. “The fire’s going out. He’ll get cold.”

“I will certainly stoke it up again, just as soon as I can be sure that you won’t do anything foolish that might hurt him,” Bilbo said.

The dwarf looked back at him sharply, anger snapping in his eyes.

“I’m looking after him,” he said, voice cracking slightly. “I’m not going to – I won’t hurt him. I’d never hurt him.”

“Well, not intentionally, of course,” Bilbo said, raising his hands in a conciliatory gesture and inwardly cursing his own too-ready tongue. “Of course you would not. But I only mean to say that you are so very attentive, and that you might go in to see him without thinking about it, and then he might catch your cold. And as I have said, that could be very bad for him.”

Said it he had, at least five times by his last count, but the older dwarf still didn’t seem convinced, hovering by the open door and staring in at his brother. He coughed once, and then again, and, as if in answer, the little dwarf on the bed stirred and erupted into a series of rattling coughs that had him curling around himself and sobbing.

The older dwarf took a step forward, then shook his head, eyes wide and worried.

“Help him,” he said. “Go and help him, he’s all on his own.”

“Can you promise me you’ll stay here?” Bilbo asked.

“I promise, I promise, just – help him,” the older dwarf said, and even though he had already proven that he would not hesitate to break a promise he had made, nonetheless, Bilbo had little choice but to trust him. So he hurried into the room, and climbed onto the bed, propping up the little dwarf against him as before. The coughing fit was dying down, now, but the tears were flowing freely, and when the little dwarf felt Bilbo behind him he half-turned and buried his face in Bilbo’s shoulder, thin fingers curling in Bilbo’s sleeve.

“It hurts,” he whispered. “Mama, it hurts.”

“I know,” Bilbo murmured, pulling him close. “I know. You’re being very brave. There, there.”

He looked back at the door and saw the older dwarf watching anxiously just outside the room. His hands were flexing at his sides, and there was no trace now of the fury that had been so obvious earlier.

“What about the fire?” he said.

The younger dwarf stirred in Bilbo’s arms. “Fili,” he mumbled, so quietly that the older dwarf could not have heard him.

“Go back to sleep,” Bilbo said to him, trying to think of a way to soothe him. He settled for stroking his hair, and that seemed to work – or perhaps the little dwarf was already on his way to sleep anyway. But whichever was the case, in only a minute or two he was a weight in Bilbo’s arms, frowning and still straining to breathe, but asleep nonetheless.

Bilbo waited a moment or two more, then laid him carefully down against the pillows and went to stoke up the fire. This done, he returned to the hall, shivering a little at the draught. The older dwarf was barefoot, he saw, dressed only in the shirt and trousers that Bilbo had lent him the night before.

“And you should go back to sleep, as well,” he said. “It will do you no good to stand out here in the cold.”

The older dwarf frowned and shook his head. “I’m staying here,” he said. “You said I can’t go in there, but you didn’t say I can’t stay here.”

“Well – well, no, I didn’t say that specifically,” Bilbo said, feeling a little flummoxed at the stubbornness of the child. “But of course you can’t. You are ill, and you need bed and hot tea and a nice warm fire. Standing around in a draught will not help you at all.”

The dwarf’s jaw hardened, his eyes like flint as he stared at Bilbo. “You can’t make me leave,” he said, and then rather spoiled the effect by sneezing violently.

Bilbo sighed in exasperation, then closed his eyes and counted to ten. When he opened them again, the dwarf was still glaring at him, but he was shivering slightly, and his feet looked almost blue.

“Now, listen here, master dwarf,” Bilbo said, and then knelt down on the hall floor, though if he had been asked he would not have been able to explain why. “Listen,” he said again, a little more gently. “I want very much to help your brother get well. But you see, he wants someone with him all the time. It is a comfort to him, I think. And of course, it is you he wants, but he cannot have you, and though I am a poor substitute, I think I am better than nothing at all. But I cannot look after your brother as wholeheartedly as I would like if I have to spend part of my time worrying about you, as well. You will make yourself ill, out here in the cold.”

The dwarf frowned, wiping his nose on his sleeve. Bilbo, feeling rather disgusted, produced a pocket handkerchief and held it out to him, and he took it absent-mindedly, staring at his brother, and then wiped his nose on his sleeve again.

“I won’t get ill,” he decided. “I’m a dwarf, and dwarves don’t get ill. And I need to watch him, to make sure he’s all right.” He looked back at Bilbo. “So I’ll stay here.”

Bilbo pursed his lips. Quite apart from the absurdity of claiming that dwarves did not get ill, given their present circumstances, he found himself having to bite back a number of sharp words regarding this particular dwarf’s stubborn insistence on being in the way and causing trouble for himself and everyone around him.

“Well,” he said, trying to think of something that might work to persuade him. And then, he had something of an idea, although he did not know for sure if it was even possible. “Well – I think I may be able to help solve our problem. Only may, master dwarf, you understand. But, now, I will do what I can, but in the meantime, you must please go back to your bed. I promise you I will tell you immediately if anything changes with your brother, and there is very little you can do for him standing out here while he sleeps, now, is there?”

The dwarf shook his head a little, but he was looking much less sure of himself, now – even a little dazed, Bilbo thought, though he could not think why that might be.

“Not only that,” Bilbo said, warming to his subject, “but the quicker you get over your own illness, the quicker you will be able to see your brother properly. So of course bed is the best place for you.”

Whether this argument might have been the one to finally convince the dwarf, Bilbo would never find out, for at that moment the dwarf swayed on his feet, and staggered, and Bilbo had to lean forward to steady him before he fell. The dwarf righted himself quickly, and pushed Bilbo’s hand away, but his eyes were suddenly brimming with tears, and Bilbo felt an unwelcome pain in his own heart at the sight.

“I’m looking after him,” the dwarf mumbled, brushing the tears away with an impatient hand.

“And an admirable job you are doing of it,” Bilbo said. “Very admirable indeed. Now come – you must eat something and go to sleep.”

He took the dwarf by the shoulders and turned him gently in the direction of his own room, then shepherded him towards it. And the dwarf – for once – did not resist, but only stumbled along in front of Bilbo, and got into bed when he was told. He looked most unhappy, eyes still bright, though he did not shed any more tears. And when Bilbo came back with a bowl of stew for him, he found him staring at nothing with a look of desolation on his face.

“There, now,” Bilbo said, setting the stew down. “And I will go and see to your brother.”

The dwarf looked up at him, then, and a pitiful sight he made indeed, all the fire gone out of him. “He won’t die, will he?” he said.

“I should think not,” Bilbo said, ignoring the misgivings in his heart. “As you said, dwarves are very strong, by all accounts.”

He patted the dwarf’s hand, amazed at the difference between the rampaging terror of earlier and the frightened child of now. Indeed, he was almost sorry to leave him, sympathy stirring in his heart.

But he had no choice, for it was time for the other dwarf’s medicine, and he was much the more pressing case. Bilbo stoked up the fire and was about to close the door when the dwarf raised a hand.

“Leave it open,” he said.

Bilbo turned to say something about draughts, but then remembered that he had locked the dwarf into this room not so long ago, and thought he understood. Perhaps a draught was necessary on the way to producing a little more trust between the two of them.

“Of course,” he said, and slipped away.

****

The little dwarf was drifting in a half-waking, half-sleeping state when Bilbo arrived back in his room, tears rolling silently down his cheeks. The sight was enough to give Bilbo a fresh pang in his chest, and he wondered once again when he might be rid of these dwarves and all the heart pains they brought with them.

“Hello, my boy,” he said. “Time for your medicine.”

In response, the little dwarf turned towards him, reaching out for him with eyes half closed and drawing in a sobbing breath.

“Where did you go?” he whimpered. “Don’t go away, it hurts.”

Bilbo’s throat became oddly painful all of a sudden, and he swallowed two or three times before it returned to normal. “Well, I’m here now,” he said. “Open wide.”

The little dwarf swallowed the medicine, but he was still crying pitifully, if silently, and Bilbo hardly had any choice but to climb up on the bed behind him and prop him up, as before. The little dwarf curled into him, fingers clutching at his arm, and Bilbo tucked the blankets in more securely around him and hummed a little tune that he remembered his mother had used to sing to him sometimes.

“There now, go to sleep,” he said.

It took some time, but at last the little dwarf did fall asleep, breath wheezing in his throat. Bilbo made to disentangle himself, only to find that the dwarf immediately woke up again, grasping at Bilbo’s arm until his grip became rather painful.

“No, no,” he moaned. “Don’t leave me, don’t leave me.”

And what could Bilbo, or indeed any creature with a heart in its chest, do in response to such a plea? Only what he did: he sat back on the bed, settled the little dwarf back in his arms, and started humming again.

Outside the windows, it was full daylight, and the snow was bright and sparkling under the sun.

Bilbo had the feeling it was going to be a long day.

Chapter Text

Just as Bilbo had predicted, the morning seemed to go on for ever. The little dwarf slept in his arms, but every time he tried to lay him down onto the pillows, he would half-wake, and cry, and clutch at Bilbo’s clothes until he had not the heart to do anything but settle back down. He began to wonder if he should be trapped on the bed until they all starved to death, when the sound of a knock at the door saved him at last.

“I must get that,” he said to the sleeping dwarf, as if the child would hear him or understand him if he did. Then he set about trying to extract himself from his situation. He slid the little dwarf sideways as gently as possible, in the hope that he might not wake at all. Sadly, this hope was ill-founded—no sooner had the dwarf moved so that his back was no longer pressed against Bilbo’s chest, than he began to stir and whimper in his sleep.

“Now, now,” Bilbo said. “I am not going far, and I will come back soon. Come, you must let me go.”

This exhortation had no effect at all upon the little dwarf, who clutched at Bilbo’s sleeve, eyes half-open, now, but still glazed with confusion.

“Don’t leave me,” he mumbled. “You said you wouldn’t leave me on my own.”

“I won’t. I won’t!” Bilbo replied. “I am only going into the hall. Not far away at all.” There came another knock at the door, and Bilbo sighed, then set his jaw and hardened his heart. “I must go,” he said, and began to unpin the little dwarf’s fingers from his sleeve.

At this, the little dwarf began to cry in earnest, though he put up no resistance other than this. Even so, it was almost enough to topple Bilbo, and if Lily Bolger had not called out at that moment, he might even have given up entirely. But she did, and so he did not.

“Bilbo Baggins,” she called. “Are you in there? I have some herbs for your little dwarves.”

“Hmph,” Bilbo said to himself, finally detaching the little dwarf’s hand from his sleeve and turning away to avoid watching him curl into a small, miserable ball. “They are not mine. Certainly not!”

And he hurried to the door, and did not look back.

Lily stood on the doorstep with a rather impatient look on her face. Beyond her, the snow was dazzling in the bright sunlight, but despite the clear skies the day was breathtakingly cold, and Bilbo quickly stepped back to allow Lily in so that he could shut the door against it.

“I’ve been knocking—were you asleep?” Lily asked, taking off her shawl.

“No, indeed,” Bilbo said. “I have barely slept a wink since you left! But the little one is rather difficult, you see. He wants to be held all the time, and cries when he is left alone.”

“Oh, well, as to that,” Lily said briskly, “they cannot learn to be alone if you always sit with them, of course. You must just ignore his crying, and he will soon learn to stop.”

Bilbo was not very sure about that—either that the child would stop or that he had the strength of will to ignore the tears—but he did not care to argue, and so he changed the subject.

“Did you find what you needed for the tincture?” he asked.

“I did, indeed,” Lily said. “And I have brought some things for the other one, as well, for a head cold—I assume he has one this morning?”

“He does,” Bilbo said. “He is brought rather low by it.”

“Childish theatrics, I’m sure,” Lily said. “Well, here, give him this to chew, and put some of this ointment under his nose, and he’ll be right as rain in no time. Now, then, I shall need some boiling water.”

As it turned out, Lily’s new medicine was intended to be mixed with hot water and inhaled as steam. Bilbo dutifully prepared the water, and brought the bowl to the little dwarf’s room, setting it on the small table beside his bed. The dwarf was curled up on the pillows, eyes screwed tight shut, shivering, and Bilbo thought he had never seen a more bedraggled-looking creature.

“Now then, young master dwarf,” Lily said. “Time to wake up and I have something to make you feel better.”

She reached down and shook the little dwarf gently by the shoulder. The dwarf just whimpered and mumbled at first, but when Lily shook him more firmly, he opened his eyes. He blinked blearily up at her for a moment or two, but then he started violently, eyes opening wide and clearer than Bilbo had yet seen them. He stared at Lily, and then at Bilbo, and then looked sharply around himself, sitting up so fast he must have made himself dizzy, for he clutched at the bedpost and grew pale.

“Come over here,” Lily said, gesturing towards the steaming bowl. “Time for some more medicine.”

But the little dwarf didn’t obey—in fact, he did the opposite, scrambling back across the bed with a quiet, frightened squeak, looking from Lily to Bilbo and then glancing frantically around the room. His breath, already laboured, began to grow worse, and once he reached the corner of the bed he seemed to be desperately trying to burrow himself into it, fingers clawing at the mattress.

Lily turned to frown at Bilbo. “Well, what is wrong with him?” she asked.

Bilbo shook his head, then raised his hands to show the little dwarf that there was nothing in them.

“Come, now,” he said. “Don’t you remember me? You have been in my hobbit hole for almost a night and a day, now.”

But it was clear that the little dwarf did not remember him, or, if he did, was nonetheless terrified of him. He managed, somehow, to squirm into the gap between the bedpost and the wall, and half hid his face behind the bedstead, round eyes staring out at Bilbo. At that moment, he was attacked by a fit of coughing so violent it shook the whole bed, and he clung to the bedstead, clearly trying to watch Bilbo and Lily, but unable to due to the coughing, until at last he curled around himself and began a desperate sort of sobbing that only increased in pitch as the coughing wore on and on.

“Bother,” Bilbo muttered, feeling altogether helpless, for he could hardly comfort the little dwarf when he seemed to be a major source of his distress. There was nothing for it: he would have to fetch the older one.

But when he turned to do so, he found that his intervention was not needed: the older dwarf was already standing in the doorway, face full of worry. When he saw Bilbo looked at him, he scowled.

“You hurt him,” he said.

“I did no such thing,” Bilbo said. “He has woken up properly, so it seems, and realised that he doesn’t know me.” He supposed it was a good sign, the clearing of the little dwarf’s mind, but he rather wished his confusion might have continued a little longer, since it had made him so much easier to handle.

The older dwarf glared at him for a moment or two longer, then turned all his attention towards the bed. The little dwarf’s coughs had died down, but he was still curled up, half stuffed behind the bedstead, covering his head with his hands as if he was afraid of a blow, and crying in a muffled kind of way.

The older dwarf frowned, then whistled, a fluting note that was clearly an imitation of a bird call, though Bilbo was not familiar with the bird in question. At the sound, the little dwarf stiffened, and then lifted his head, peering out through his hair and then sitting up properly when he saw his brother in the doorway. He opened his mouth, and then quickly closed it again, eyes wide. A moment later, he frowned, and Bilbo, wondering what it was he was responding to, glanced at the older dwarf and saw nothing amiss. But a second glance revealed something else: the older dwarf had his hands in front of him, and his fingers were twitching slightly. It was subtle enough that Bilbo wasn’t sure it was anything other than a nervous tic. But then he looked back at the little dwarf, clinging to the bedstead, eyes fixed on his brother, and he saw—yes. The little dwarf was doing it, too, hands forming shapes, but more clumsy, less subtle than his brother. Now it was clear that this was no random twitching: the dwarves were speaking to one another with their hands.

“Well, I never,” Bilbo murmured, and the older dwarf spared him a quick glance, then looked back at his brother. He signed something, and Bilbo looked over to see the little dwarf shake his head, and then detach himself from the bedstead and start crawling across the bed towards the door. The older dwarf, though, vehemently shook his head and signed something that, even with no sound behind it, had a sharp tone. The little dwarf stopped moving at that, and sat on the bed, breathing laboured, eyes bright. He signed something else, a pleading expression on his face, and a tear rolled down his cheek, though he made no sound.

“I can’t,” the older dwarf said, and then shook his head again and signed something else. The little dwarf’s face crumpled a little, and more tears spilled over his cheeks, but he didn’t sign anything back, only sat on the bed and stared at his brother.

“I’m sorry,” the older dwarf muttered, and turned quickly to Bilbo. “He’ll let you give him the medicine now. He was just scared because he didn’t know who you were.”

“Well, as to that,” Bilbo said, and turned towards the bed. “My name is Bilbo Baggins, and this is my friend Lily, who will be helping you get better. And you are?”

The little dwarf didn’t even seem to have heard him; he was still staring at his brother, still crying silently, and Bilbo ignored the quiet pain in his chest at witnessing the sight, and cleared his throat.

“Excuse me, young master dwarf,” he said. “I am speaking to you.”

The older dwarf flicked his fingers quickly, and the younger blinked and then looked around at Bilbo. He looked back at his brother and made a sign, and the brother answered in the same language.

“He doesn’t talk,” the older dwarf said.

“Oh—well—but I have heard him,” Bilbo said. “He spoke to me a number of times when he was delirious.”

The older dwarf scowled at him. “He doesn’t talk,” he said firmly.

Lily raised her eyebrows at this. “You would do well to show a little more respect to your elders, master dwarf,” she said.

The older dwarf’s expression darkened further, but whatever he might have said—if, indeed, he was intending to say anything at all—was cut off by the eruption of another painful-sounding coughing fit from the younger dwarf. The older dwarf swung sharply back to face the bed and took half a step forward, foot crossing the threshold of the door, before pulling back.

“Help him,” he said, suddenly sounding very young. “Aren’t you supposed to be helping him?”

“Well, I have never seen any child so badly brought up,” Lily said, but she turned back to the bed and waited for the little dwarf’s hacking cough to die down. It took a long time, and was most unpleasant to witness—not least because the little dwarf was clearly in great distress, face turning red with effort and tears continually rolling down his face. But when Bilbo moved to get on the bed and help him, he scrambled backwards, gasping and shaking his head.

“I won’t hurt you,” Bilbo said. A few hours ago, he had been wishing that the little dwarf did not need quite so much in the way of comfort, but now, suddenly, he would have preferred to take that wish back. “Hasn’t your brother told you that?”

The little dwarf didn’t speak, only watched him as best he could as his coughing began to die out.

“Here, now,” Lily said, beckoning to him once the fit seemed at last to be over. “Your brother says you will take the medicine, so come here.”

The little dwarf blinked at her, then cast a quick glance at his brother, who jerked his head in Lily’s direction. The little dwarf swallowed, then shuffled over to the edge of the bed, shivering a little.

“Here,” Lily said, pointing to the bowl of hot water. “Lean over this and breathe. I’m going to put this towel over your head. The steam will make you feel better.”

The little dwarf chewed his lip, then leaned over the bowl, and Lily draped the towel over his head.

“Just stay there and breathe until I tell you to stop,” she said. Then she dusted off her hands and turned to look at the older dwarf. “And you won’t be getting well, standing in the hall like that,” she said. “Back to bed with you.”

The older dwarf frowned. “I need to make sure he’s all right,” he said.

“He’s quite all right,” Lily replied. “He doesn’t need you watching him.”

The older dwarf’s mouth set into a stubborn line. “Yes, he does,” he said. “He needs me. He’s poorly, and I can’t watch him if I’m in the other room.”

It was at that moment that Bilbo remembered his half-formed plan from earlier in the day, and he stood up a little straighter.

“Ah!” he said. “Now that Lily is here to look after your brother, I think I may be able to help you with that.” He made to leave the room, but was surprised to find the older dwarf’s hand grasping at his wrist.

“Mister,” he said in a low voice, “don’t leave him alone with her. I don’t like her.”

Bilbo blinked down at him. “Well, it doesn’t seem as though you like me very much, either, so I’m not sure how my staying here will help,” he said.

The dwarf looked worried. “I don’t know what she’ll do,” he said. “She might give him something bad to drink if you don’t watch her.”

Bilbo opened his mouth to tell the dwarf exactly what he thought of that idea—and, what was more, to point out that he could not tell the difference between one medicine and another and so could hardly prevent Lily giving the little dwarf something bad if she had a mind—but then he took in the older dwarf’s expression, the lost and frightened look in his eyes, and he swallowed his words. They would keep until matters were less fraught, he decided.

“I will stay here,” he said. “When Lily has gone, I will try and solve our problem. But until then I will stay here. There, is that good enough? Will you go back to bed?”

The older dwarf cast one more worried frown in the direction of his brother, who still sat leaning over the bowl, and then nodded.

“But you’ll get me if he needs me?” he said. “You will, won’t you?”

Bilbo nodded. “Of course,” he said.

The older dwarf frowned at nothing for a moment or two, then turned and shuffled back along the hall to his own room. Bilbo watched him go, and shook his head.

“What odd creatures dwarves are,” he said.

****

After the older dwarf had left, the younger became altogether less troublesome. Bilbo should probably have felt quite relieved by this, as, after all, he had spent most of the night and all the morning tethered to the bed, unable to harden his heart against the little dwarf’s tears and pleas. But now, the little dwarf had stopped speaking entirely, and, at those times when his head was not bowed over the steaming bowl, he divided his time between watching Bilbo and Lily with wary eyes, and staring at the door with a look of exhausted despair. Lily gave him his medicine, which he swallowed without resistance, and then leaned forward to test his forehead. The little dwarf shrank back into the pillows, eyes wide, and Lily paused, arm outstretched.

“I’m only going to see if you’re feverish,” she said. “Don’t be foolish, child.”

The little dwarf swallowed, and sat up a little. But he was clearly most unhappy, and his jaw clenched when Lily laid her hand on his forehead.

“Hm,” she said. “Not perfect, by any means. But certainly better than last night. Now, what is this about not speaking? You’ve a tongue, haven’t you?”
The little dwarf blinked at her, and she tapped her foot.

“Am I to believe you don’t know how to nod or shake your head, either?” she said. “Have you a tongue or haven’t you?”

The little dwarf nodded quickly, then opened his mouth and stuck his tongue out.

“Hm,” Lily said, inspecting it. “Doesn’t look shrivelled or otherwise inadequate. No excuse for silence, certainly. Not to mention you were talking perfectly well in the night.”

The little dwarf closed his mouth again, eyes wide. He pressed his lips shut and looked at Bilbo, then at the door.

“Well, if he doesn’t talk, he doesn’t talk, I suppose,” Bilbo said, deciding that there was no need to upset the little creature further. “It’s rather inconvenient, certainly, but nothing more than that.”

“Hmph,” Lily said. “I don’t hold with encouraging childish fancies.” But she didn’t press further, and only glanced around herself, then nodded. “Have him breathe over the bowl as often as he needs—every two hours, at least—and remember to give him his medicine. And don’t forget the other one, either.”

“No, indeed,” Bilbo said, feeling a sudden weight of responsibility. How he had gone from worrying about nothing but keeping his own fire stoked and his own belly full to having to remember lists of medicines and times to take them for two different children—not even hobbit children, at that!—he had no idea. It all seemed to have happened startlingly fast, and he could not even remember what he had originally been planning for the day. In fact, thinking at all seemed rather difficult, though he supposed that was due to his own lack of sleep.

“Good,” Lily said. “Now, if you will excuse me.”

And she gathered up her things, and said her farewells. After accompanying her to the hall, Bilbo returned to the guest room to find the little dwarf staring at the door, a desolate expression on his face. He was crying silently again, but when Bilbo came in he blinked and made a visible effort to stop, pulling his knees up in front of him and wrapping his arms around them.

“Oh, dear,” Bilbo said. “Your brother is only next door, you know. He hasn’t abandoned you. Did he explain to you why he can’t come in here?”

The little dwarf’s mouth twitched unhappily, and he nodded.

“But you don’t like to be left alone,” Bilbo said, half to himself. “And I suppose now that you have realised I’m neither your mother nor your brother, I won’t be much use to you in that regard.”

The little dwarf’s forehead wrinkled slightly, as if he wasn’t quite sure what Bilbo meant. His eyes seemed rather glazed, his cheeks flushed, and although his breathing did seem to have improved somewhat since his treatment, he still looked rather like a dishtowel that has been wrung out too many times.

“Well, go to sleep,” Bilbo said. “Your brother is next door—the doors are even open, you see? So you are very close to him indeed—and I will wake you in an hour or two for more medicine. I think you’re getting better, don’t you?”

The little dwarf didn’t answer, not even with a nod or shake of his head, but he sank back on to the pillows and resumed his hopeless staring at the door for a moment or two, before his eyes slipped closed. Bilbo waited until he was sure he was asleep, then slipped out into the hall, and from there to the older dwarf’s room.

The older dwarf was in bed, too, but he had his eyes wide open, though he looked almost more exhausted than the younger one. He showed no surprise when Bilbo came through the door, and Bilbo decided he must have been listening out for footsteps.

“Now, then,” Bilbo said. “You’re supposed to chew this, by all accounts.” He bustled around for a few moments, laying out the older dwarf’s medicine beside his bed, giving him instructions and observing him narrowly, deciding that he looked tired and sniffly but not dangerously ill. “Can you remember all that?” he said at last.

The older dwarf glanced at the medicine and nodded, seeming to be paying very little attention. “Is my brother asleep?” he asked. “I haven’t heard him coughing.”

“No, the steam seems to have done him some good,” Bilbo said. “And yes, he’s asleep. I didn’t want to leave him while he was awake, since you said he gets frightened by being alone.”

The older dwarf looked a little surprised at this, but then nodded. “Thank you,” he mumbled.

Well, now it was Bilbo’s turn to look surprised. “Oh, really?” he said. “And there I thought that you didn’t know the meaning of that particular phrase!”

The dwarf’s expression darkened immediately, and Bilbo bit his tongue. “Well, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “You’re welcome, I’m sure. Now, listen, young master dwarf. I’m going to see if my plan will work. But I need you to listen for if your brother needs anything, and call out for me if he does. You can do that, can’t you?”

The older dwarf sat up a little in bed. “Of course I can,” he said. “I’ve been listening anyway, in case you were doing it wrong.”

Bilbo swallowed his response to that, and nodded. “Well, you’re an old hand, then,” he said. “I won’t be so very long, I don’t think. But remember to listen.”

“I am listening,” the older dwarf said. “I’m already listening, I’ve been doing it for ages.”

“Good,” Bilbo said, and hurried away.

He made his way along the hall, through the living room, to the parts of the hobbit hole he rarely used. Bag End was a rather sprawling construction, which had been added to and altered by several generations of Bagginses, and it was really a little too large for just one hobbit to live in—although live there he did, and very happily, too, at least when he was not being disturbed by unexpected dwarf children. But there were some parts which he did not visit very often, and one of these was his target now. He made his way along a rather gloomy corridor, and turned left into a narrow sort of room with no windows. It had had no windows for as long as Bilbo had been alive, and yet he remembered a story his father had used to tell about this room: that once, it had looked out onto the hillside, but that one winter, after an immense amount of rain, the hillside had collapsed in this spot, blocking out the view from the room. And that, some years later, Bilbo’s grandfather had built a new room beyond it, and blocked up the window.

“Well, if it’s true, it must be here somewhere,” Bilbo muttered to himself, and began to run his hands along the walls. For quite some time, it seemed a fruitless task, and he began to wonder if he had the right room at all, or if indeed the story was simply something his father had made up to keep him entertained. But then, at last, his fingers encountered a slight irregularity, and when he followed it along, he found that it continued in a straight line until turning a sharp corner. In fact, it described a rectangle, and once Bilbo’s fingers had made one complete circuit, he stepped back and nodded.

“There you are,” he said.

He paused, then, suddenly aware of the damage he was proposing to do to his own hobbit hole—and what for? For two uninvited guests who seemed entirely ungrateful for everything he had done for them so far? Why they could not learn to get along as they were, Bilbo had no idea. Why, it was quite irrational, not to mention foolish. He suddenly could not quite remember why he had been so determined to find this spot in the first place, and he shook his head at himself and went back to the warm, lived-in part of his hobbit hole. But before he settled himself with a book in the living room, he thought he ought to make sure that his two guests were at least relatively comfortable, for politeness’ sake if nothing else. So he tiptoed along the hall, not wishing to wake the younger one.

He need not have worried, however: the little dwarf was awake again, eyes fixed on the door, tears on his cheeks. Bilbo frowned and hurried into the room.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “Are you feeling ill?”

The little dwarf looked up at him, desolate-eyed. His breathing was thick and heavy, but still improved from the night before, and Bilbo could not see what the problem was. Until the dwarf looked back at the door, twisting the blankets in his fists.

“Your brother,” Bilbo said, suddenly understanding. “You’re lonely, is that it?”

The little dwarf looked at him again, then back at the door. Then back at Bilbo, expression suddenly pleading.

“No, I’m sorry,” Bilbo said, feeling a mixture of pity and exasperation. He had never seen two creatures so attached to each other, and he couldn’t help feeling that it was all rather foolish. “He can’t come in here, and you already know why.”

The little dwarf’s face crumpled, and despite himself, Bilbo felt a sudden desire to do whatever was necessary to stop the fresh tears that flowed down his cheeks. He restrained himself, however, only sighing loudly. “Come, now. If you will go to sleep, I’m sure you will get better faster, and then you will be able to see him. So close your eyes.”

The little dwarf hiccuped quietly and then closed his eyes, screwing them tight shut as if he thought that this would somehow make him fall asleep faster. Bilbo couldn’t help feeling a little guilty, for in fact he had only told the child to go to sleep so that he wouldn’t have to watch him cry any more. But still, it could hardly be a bad thing for an ill child to sleep, and so he smothered the guilt as best he could and turned to go.

He looked back on leaving the room, though, and saw that the little dwarf’s eyes were open again, and he was watching the door, just as before. He closed his eyes as soon as he saw Bilbo looking, but it was too late to hide it.

“Sleep,” Bilbo said again.

But he had a feeling sleep would be long in coming.

****

And so, Bilbo returned to the disused room that had once looked out on the hillside. It was not without some wrestling with himself that he made the decision, for some part of him still insisted that it was ridiculous to go to such trouble, and permanently alter one’s own home into the bargain, merely to please the fancy of two silly children. And yet, there was some greater part of him that kept remembering the little dwarf’s forlorn tears, and the older dwarf’s almost-hysterical desire to look after his brother, and could not quite bear to leave them as they were, though separated only by a single wall.

Next, though, came the problem of how he was to proceed. Bilbo had many talents, chief among them an extraordinary ability to sit in comfort and read for many, many hours, provided there was a good supply of tea and toast, but the kind of work this required was not one of them. He considered going for help, but when he stepped back out into the hall, he saw that it was snowing furiously outside, and if he was honest with himself, he had an odd reluctance to reveal to any more hobbits that his strange guests existed. So he considered, and wondered, and finally went to find a dusty old box of tools that he was sure existed in one of his cellars.

Some time later, covered in dust and whitewash, Bilbo sighed. The job was not perfect—in fact, not particularly well done at all—but it was a beginning, at least. It would do for now. He rubbed at the part of the window that had been revealed by his efforts, and tried to peer through. But of course, on the other side was simply more earth from the wall of the next room.

Bilbo sighed. But there was no sense leaving a job half-done, and so he took his tools, and trudged off to the next room.

****

Bilbo worked for all of the rest of the morning and much of the afternoon, pausing as necessary to give the little dwarf his medicine and make sure they all had something to eat. This last was a little difficult, for the little dwarf seemed still not to have any appetite, but Bilbo at least managed to get him to finish slightly less than half a bowl of stew, and he supposed that would have to do. At last, feeling sore and very dirty, he stood back and surveyed his work. The window was mostly uncovered on both side, now, though the glass was still rather dirty. The outer room had a window to the outdoors, as well, though half-covered in snow, but the inner room was very gloomy, the only natural light coming through the smudged glass of the newly revealed window. Still, it was good enough for the purpose, Bilbo thought, and improving all the time with the addition of firelight and candles, and the removal of a number of enterprising spiders along with their webs. There were beds in these rooms, though they had not been slept in for many years and neither had so much as a mattress on the bare bedsteads. Both were rather small as well, though given the size of his guests, Bilbo rather thought that would not cause any problems. He went searching through the hobbit hole for mattresses, blankets, pillows, and once he had made up each bed to be as comfortable as possible—complete with hot water bottles tucked under the blankets—he placed each bed on either side of the window.

“There,” he said, surveying the scene. “Well, I hope they’re happy now.”

And he went, not even pausing to wash his hands, to find the dwarves.

****

He found the older dwarf sitting up in bed, chewing on the bark that Lily had left for him and looking entirely miserable. His nose looked red and sore, his eyes watery, and even as Bilbo came in he sneezed violently once, and then again and again.

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said. “Are you using the ointment as I told you?”

The dwarf made some attempt to scowl at him, but it was such a watery, ill-looking scowl that it bore no heat whatsoever. “Is my brother all right?” he asked.

“Well, as to that,” Bilbo said, “I think I can help to ease your mind. If you will just come with me—bring a blanket, I don’t want you getting cold.”

“Where are we going?” the older dwarf asked. “Are we going to see him?”

“In a way,” Bilbo said. “Come along, now.”

But the dwarf just folded his arms and glowered. “In what way?” he said. “Where are we going?”

Bilbo closed his eyes and prayed for patience. His prayer went unanswered.

“I must say, master dwarf,” he said—or perhaps snapped would be the more appropriate word—“I do think you are quite ungrateful, not to mention far more suspicious of me than I deserve. Why, I have done nothing but look after you since you arrived, and try to help your brother, and yet still you refuse to trust me at every turn. It is quite unjust.”

The dwarf’s scowl didn’t fade, but a flicker of uncertainty appeared in his eyes. “I don’t need looking after,” he muttered.

“Hmph,” Bilbo said. “I would very much beg to differ. But, come now. I will show you your brother, I promise it.”

He waited, and after a moment, the dwarf reluctantly climbed out of bed, though he did not take the blanket as Bilbo had asked. He followed Bilbo out of the door, a sullen expression on his face, but when he saw which direction Bilbo was turning in, he paused.

“That’s the wrong way,” he said, glancing in the other direction, towards the door of his brother’s room.

“I promise you it is not,” Bilbo said. “Your brother is not there yet, but I will bring him to you very soon.”

The dwarf shifted from foot to foot. “Where’s my sword?” he asked.

“Locked away for everyone’s safety,” Bilbo said, tone a little sharper than he had intended. “Master dwarf, please. I am very tired, and I am only trying to help.”

The dwarf subsided, and followed Bilbo into the living room, though he glanced back often at his brother’s door. He grew more restless still as they passed through the living room and into the dim hallway beyond, and by the time Bilbo reached the doorway of the first of the two linked rooms, he was hanging back a number of steps.

“Here,” Bilbo said. “I have something to show you.”

The dwarf stood stock still at that, then took a step back. “Where’s my brother?” he asked, voice quavering a little.

Bilbo frowned at him. “In his room, where he has been all morning and all night,” he said. “I will bring him here soon, as I said.”

The dwarf was watching him, jaw set. “I want to see him,” he said. “I didn’t go and look before, I don’t know if he’s in there or not.”

Bilbo shook his head and took a step forward, then paused as he saw the dwarf stumble back a step, eyes widening. The distance between them was enough that Bilbo could not reach across it, and he found himself quite confounded as to what had suddenly happened to make the dwarf slip from sullen and reluctant to frightened and skittish. He looked around the hallway, and saw that it did look rather grim—there were no candles here except the one Bilbo was holding, and it had a sort of musty, disused air. Furthermore, the door to the second room with the window to the outside was closed, so no light could fall through it.

He stood still, trying to imagine what it might be like to be a child, lost in a strange place, untrusting of strangers for whatever reason. He looked behind himself and saw that the hallway kept on winding into the hillside, black and empty, like a mouth waiting to swallow up the unwary. His own shadow was leaping huge on the wall from the flickering candle, and there was a waft of cold air and damp from the depths of the corridor. To Bilbo, it all just seemed mildly unpleasant, and made him want to spring clean and bring some warmth back into the place. But to a child, a child who was clearly already quite frightened—well.

“All right, master dwarf,” he said, trying his best to sound kind and patient. “Perhaps you are right to be a little wary. Now look. I have brought you here because these rooms have a window between them. This one here—” he pointed at the first one “—and the next one over there. It is a glass window, you see, and I thought, if you were to lie in bed in the first and your brother in the second, you would be able to see each other through it, but not pass on your illnesses to each other. Do you see? That is the only reason I brought you here, and I promise it is nothing else.”

The older dwarf glanced back behind him, then edged sideways a little. He looked like he was trying to decide whether he should run away, and Bilbo had no desire to go chasing him out into the snow—not to mention he would most likely run to his brother, and give him his illness straight away—so he took a step back and raised his hands.

“Well,” he said. “Well—why don’t you come and look? I can—” he looked around himself, and spied a door with a key in it on the other side of the corridor. “I can go in here, and lock myself in, so that you will hear if I turn the key to come out again, and you will have time to move away, if that’s what you want. And then you can come and look, and see that it is just as I have said, that there is a window between the rooms, and that is all there is to it.”

The dwarf considered for a moment, face still wary. Then he nodded.

“You’ll lock the door?” he said.

Bilbo nodded, taking the key out of the lock, and then opening the door. “I will come out in a few minutes,” he said, and stepped inside. He locked the door as loudly as he could, and then leaned against it, sighing heavily in frustration. The room he was in was a large cupboard, with barely enough room for Bilbo amongst the various and sundry mathoms of years past, now piled up and gathering dust. A spider or two skittered away from the light of the candle into the darker corners, and Bilbo shook his head.

“Dwarves,” he muttered to himself.

A moment later, there came a knock at the door.

“Mister,” the dwarf called through. “I’ve seen it. It’s like you said.”

Bilbo unlocked the door and stepped out. “And so you believe I mean you no harm?” he said.

The dwarf still looked a little wary, but he nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Can you bring K— my, my brother here so I can see him through the window?”

“I will, indeed,” Bilbo said. “But now. Why is it that you are still calling me Mister? I have told you my name, have I not?”

The dwarf nodded slowly. “I keep forgetting it,” he mumbled. “It’s strange.”

“Not at all!” Bilbo said in surprise, but he supposed dwarves must have rather different names—certainly, if this one truly was the Fili his brother kept talking of in his sleep—and young ones like these would not be familiar with the common names of other races. Well, he could make allowances. “Bilbo,” he said. “My name is Bilbo.”

“Bilbo,” the dwarf said, enunciating carefully. “Mr Bilbo.”

“Much better,” Bilbo said with a smile. “And I don’t suppose you would care to tell me your name?”

The dwarf chewed his lip for a moment. “Borin, son of—Kerin,” he said at last, and made a jerky sort of bow. “At your service.”

Bilbo raised his eyebrows, for he had been almost certain that this dwarf must be the Fili that his brother spoke of. But he only nodded. “And your brother?” he asked.

“...B— Dorin,” the dwarf said, and then nodded quickly. “Son of—also son of Kerin, because we’re brothers.”

“I see,” said Bilbo. “And where is this Kerin, then, and why is he allowing his sons to wander around in the wilderness by themselves?”

The wary look immediately returned to the dwarf’s eyes. “He’s dead,” he said. “We’re orphans. We don’t need parents, I’m old enough and I look after—after Dorin.”

Bilbo’s eyebrows rose higher, but he decided against arguing with the dwarf about whether he was old enough or not. Instead, he gestured to the rooms. “Well, master dwarf,” he said, “well met, and so on, and would you like to go to bed so I can bring your brother here?”

The dwarf nodded, still seeming a little wary, and went to the second room—the one with a window to the outside. Bilbo followed him, standing in the doorway and watching as he climbed into the bed.

“I rather thought you might want your brother to have this room,” he said. The dwarf had shown such consideration for his brother up until now, and the room was much more pleasant than the other, with pale light falling through the window to the outdoors.

The dwarf paused, looking back at him, and then at the snow-covered window. “Someone could come in,” he said.

Bilbo had not even considered this—and why should he, when the only people who might be abroad outside the window were the hobbits of Hobbiton, who surely had no interest in breaking in to steal a dwarf child? But he saw no use in arguing, and indeed did not care overmuch which dwarf had which room, as long as it made them less troublesome. So he only nodded and went back to find the little one.

He found him kneeling on the floor in the hallway outside his room, doubled over and wheezing, face hidden by his dishevelled hair. Bilbo, heart suddenly pounding, went down on his knees in front of the little dwarf, taking him by the shoulders and trying to lift him up a little.

“Oh, now, just breathe,” he said. “Come, come. Here, with me.”

He breathed in and out, slowly and deeply, and the little dwarf clearly did his best to follow, but just as clearly could not do so. His desperate straining to suck in a breath was painful indeed to watch, and when Bilbo looked closer, he saw, with a lurch of his stomach, that the dwarf’s lips were tinged with blue. Bilbo shook his head, then leaned forward and swept the little dwarf up into his arms, carrying him with his head on Bilbo’s shoulder. He took him to the kitchen, where the water that he had boiled several times already for the steam-bowl was still hot, and sat him on the bench by the table.

“I won’t be a moment,” he said. “Please try to breathe.”

A moment was all it took for him to pour out the water into the bowl and mix Lily’s tincture into it, but by that stage the little dwarf had laid his head on the table, breath whistling and creaking. Bilbo set the bowl in front of him, then, when he seemed unable to lift his head, picked him up again and sat down on the bench himself, holding the child on his lap. He held his face over the steam, and then, since he could not reach a towel to put over his head, took off his own waistcoat and used that instead.

“Breathe, now,” he murmured, one arm around the little dwarf’s waist, palm planted on his chest. “Breathe, it’s very important.”

For a moment or two, the dwarf continued to struggle as before. But then something in his chest seemed to loosen, and he gulped in a true breath, and then another, body sagging against Bilbo in relief.

“There,” Bilbo said, feeling rather like he might have sagged from relief himself, if he weren’t so busy holding the little dwarf up. “There. Good.” He sat in silence for a short time, doing nothing but listen to the little dwarf breathe. Then he frowned. “And what were you doing out of bed, young master dwarf?”

The dwarf, of course, could not answer him, firstly because he was busy recovering from near-suffocation, and secondly because he was still, for some reason, pretending he couldn’t talk. But it didn’t take Bilbo very long to invent the answer for himself.

“You heard me take your brother away,” he said. “Is that it? You thought I’d taken him away?”

The little dwarf didn’t nod or shake his head, though, and when Bilbo lifted the edge of the waistcoat, he saw that he seemed only half-conscious, eyes open but glazed, features slack and exhausted.

“Hm,” Bilbo said. “We’ll talk about it later. In the meantime, back to bed with you.”

He picked the little dwarf up once again, and the dwarf must indeed have been not fully aware of his surroundings, because he put his arms around Bilbo’s neck and clung to him, breathing thick in his ear. Bilbo made his way into the living room, and at that point became aware that the little dwarf had started to cry. Very quiet it was, certainly, but the hitch in his breath and the sensation of dampness on Bilbo’s neck made it quite clear.

“Oh bother,” Bilbo muttered, and then, “There, there. It’s all right. There, there.”

He was at a loss for what else to say, and rather resentful of the fact that tears seemed to be prickling behind his own eyes—and why that should be, he had no notion, for it was not as if the little dwarf was crying over something sensible. He blinked them back with a grimace, and moved swiftly through the living room to the dark hallway, where he turned in at the first room. He laid the little dwarf down in the bed, propping him up with as many pillows as he could find and tucking the blankets around him. Then he stepped back.

“There, now,” he said. “Is that better?”

The little dwarf stared at him, tears still rolling down his cheeks, then shifted his gaze to the door. Bilbo sighed.

“You’re looking in the wrong direction,” he said, and pointed.

At that moment, the older dwarf knocked on the window separating the two rooms. The little dwarf started and turned his head, and then his eyes widened. He rolled over in the bed, reaching out and pressing his palm against the window, and the older dwarf did the same from the other side, kneeling up on his bed and bringing his face close. He made a quick gesture with his other hand, and the little dwarf blinked slowly and then responded in kind, pausing to brush the tears from his cheeks. He wriggled sideways in the bed until he was as close to the window as he could get, nose pressed against the glass.

The older dwarf nodded at him. “Go to sleep, then,” he said, voice muffled. “I’ll be here.”

The little one rested his forehead against the window, letting out a creaky sigh. Then he closed his eyes, and in moments, or so it seemed to Bilbo, he was asleep.

“Good,” Bilbo said, and raised his eyes to see that the older dwarf was watching him through the window. Neither of them spoke, but Bilbo smiled at the dwarf, and the dwarf nodded back at him before turning his eyes back to his brother. Deciding that he had done as much as was needed for the time being, Bilbo went to collect the various medicines and bring them to the new rooms.

He paused, though, in the hallway, glancing back at the little dwarf sleeping with his face pressed against the glass, and the older one sitting on the bed now, leaning his own forehead against the window and looking like he would fall asleep at any moment himself.

“Good,” Bilbo murmured again, and went on his way.

Chapter Text

Bilbo passed the next little while in blessed, peaceful solitude. He had a bath, and some afternoon tea, and curled up in his armchair to read his book, but before he had even read a page, he nodded off. When he woke, it was dark outside, and he jumped to his feet, suddenly concerned. How long had he been asleep? What if something had happened in the meantime?

He did not stop to wonder for very long, but instead hurried down the hallway to the dwarves’ rooms, heart beating a little too fast as he pictured any number of unpleasant sights that might meet his eyes. But in fact, he need not have been concerned, for when he came to the younger dwarf’s room and threw open the door, he found that the dwarf was fast asleep, half-propped on the mountain of pillows Bilbo had procured, and half-lying inside the hole in the wall that he had produced. His forehead and nose were still pressed against the glass, each crackling breath producing a small circle of steam. And on the other side, the older dwarf was faintly visible, mostly a shadow of hair and blankets, clearly asleep as well.

Bilbo stood and smiled at the pair of them, amazed that two such troublesome creatures could suddenly seem so tranquil and undemanding. He supposed it would not last very long, but he decided he would enjoy it while it did. Then, of course, he remembered the younger dwarf’s medicine, and felt sure that he must be due to take it. He slipped into the room, shaking the little dwarf by the shoulder.

“Your medicine, young master dwarf,” he murmured.

The little dwarf snuffled and opened his eyes a crack. “Fili?” he mumbled.

“He is there,” Bilbo said, pointing, and wondering. The little dwarf’s eyes opened a little more, and he gazed through the window at the indistinct shape of his brother. He pressed his hand against the glass, and then, with a little urging from Bilbo, sat up and obediently took his medicine. He didn’t seem to be fully awake, and as soon as Bilbo pushed him gently back down he curled up in the blankets with a sigh, laying his forehead against the window once again, and in a moment his breath had evened out into sleep. Bilbo considered him for a moment, wondering if he even knew that he had spoken, and that he had added more weight to Bilbo’s surmise concerning the identity of Fili.

No, he thought. Most likely not. And there was no harm in that, after all.

****

It was very quiet in Bag End for the next night and day. Now that the two little dwarves could see each other again, both of them seemed to have decided to get on with the business of getting better, and in both cases this mostly consisted of sleeping a great deal of the time. The younger dwarf, in particular, barely surfaced for longer than it took to take his medicine and eat a few mouthfuls of food. He was taken by a few coughing fits in the night after they had moved to their new rooms—coughing fits which had the older dwarf sitting up and pressing his palms against the glass, peering anxiously through while Bilbo did his best to help—but repeated application of Lily’s steam-cure seemed to be having a beneficial effect, and by the following lunchtime, he was breathing much more easily, and sleeping peacefully for the most part.

The older dwarf, in contrast, seemed to be getting worse rather than better. He had come down with a miserable cold, and a slight fever, and while he was not in any danger (as Lily declared), he was still a picture of suffering, with his red, watery eyes and his dripping nose. Bilbo attempted a number of times to instruct him on the correct use of handkerchiefs, and although he seemed to find the whole idea rather puzzling, he nonetheless eventually took to wiping his nose on them rather than his sleeve or the blankets, at least when Bilbo was in the room. When he was not asleep, though, he was mostly silent, somewhat sullen, and focussed largely on the window into his brother’s room.

So it was that, for a full day after he moved his two guests, Bilbo had very little disruption to his life. The snow still lay thickly outside, and of course he had to make sure the younger dwarf took his medicine, so he was confined to the hobbit hole, but that was no great hardship. He read his books in front of the fire, did some minor cleaning and reorganising, cooked himself an appropriate number of meals, and generally did his best to lead his life as if he had not suddenly and almost inexplicably become responsible for two poorly dwarves. He did spend half an hour in the morning considering how he might send a message to someone who could come and take them off his hands—and a little longer wringing said hands at the idea that their parents might truly be dead, for he could surely not send them away if they had no family—but then he decided that, until he could ask them more questions, he would not get very far down that path, and so he set it aside for another time.

On the morning of the third day since he had taken the dwarves into his hobbit hole, Bilbo was having breakfast when he became aware that he was not alone. He had peered into each of the two dwarves’ rooms that morning after waking, and found them both sound asleep, the little one sounding much better, the older one still sounding quite congested. But now, apparently, at least one of them was not asleep any more. Instead, he was standing mostly hidden behind the living room doorway, peering around the doorframe at Bilbo with huge, dark eyes.

Bilbo raised his eyebrows, then remembered to smile. “Hello,” he said. “I didn’t know you were up.”

The little dwarf’s eyes widened, and he ducked back behind the doorframe. Bilbo could hear him breathing—not quite normal yet, he noted—and he tapped his fingertips on the table and wondered how to proceed. At last, he found a cup, and put some milk in it, and put it at the other end of the table from where he himself was sitting.

“I’ve got some milk for you,” he said, and then continued with his breakfast.

For a few moments, nothing happened. Then, cautiously, the little dwarf emerged from behind the doorframe. He stood blinking at Bilbo, and Bilbo smiled at him. This, though, caused the little dwarf to slip halfway back behind the doorframe, and so Bilbo made sure to look down at his own food, and only to pay attention to the little dwarf out of the corners of his eyes.

And, looking out of the corners of his eyes, he saw: the little dwarf sliding out into the doorway again, eyeing the milk, and then eyeing Bilbo. He had a blanket wrapped around him, Bilbo was pleased to see, and it made him look even smaller. He tiptoed across the kitchen floor, blanket trailing behind him like a cape, and, when he was just within arm’s reach of the cup of milk, he snatched it and retreated swiftly back to the living room. There was the sound of him drinking deeply, and Bilbo laughed, and then stifled his laughter, feeling as though perhaps this sort of behaviour was not something he should be encouraging.

A moment later, the dwarf’s face appeared around the doorframe again, watching Bilbo with those round eyes.

“Hello,” Bilbo said again, and this time, the face did not disappear. Bilbo smiled, and then thought about what else he might be able to give the little dwarf to tempt him to leave his hiding place. “Would you like some breakfast?” he asked. “Here.” He buttered a bread roll and put it on a plate. When he rose to put the plate at the other end of the table, the little dwarf withdrew slightly, but not entirely, and when Bilbo sat down, he popped out into the doorway almost immediately, cup still clutched in both hands, eyeing the plate.

“It’s for you,” Bilbo said. “Freshly baked.”

The little dwarf chewed his lip and shifted from foot to foot. Then, without warning, he darted across the room, seized the bread roll, and stuffed it in his mouth, retreating back to the living room even as he did so. He choked a little, and Bilbo, wary of a coughing fit, quickly poured some more milk and put it at the end of the table.

“Slowly, master dwarf,” he said. “There’s no rush. Breakfast should be a leisurely meal.”

The little dwarf choked again, and then extracted perhaps half the bread roll from his mouth, clutching the soggy lump in one hand as he industriously chewed the other half, and watching Bilbo intently. Bilbo grimaced at the sight and wondered if anyone had ever taught either of these dwarves any manners. If their parents were both dead, then perhaps not. But they could not have been dead for so very long, if the little one was still calling for his mother in his sleep. And if their parents were dead, then what on earth was Bilbo going to do with the two of them? He could hardly keep them forever, but where did one send orphaned dwarf children?

He was distracted from his musings by the sight of the little dwarf shoving the second half of the bread roll into his mouth and then proceeding to chew it with his mouth open, still staring at Bilbo. Bilbo suppressed a sigh.

“You should eat with your mouth closed,” he said, and then put a piece of bread in his own mouth and demonstrated.

The little dwarf slid a little way behind the doorframe at the sound of Bilbo’s voice, but he also closed his mouth, and Bilbo supposed that was something of a success.

“Won’t you come and sit at the table?” Bilbo asked. “It’ll be much more comfortable for you, I’m sure.”

The little dwarf’s mouth twitched, but he made no move to come and sit with Bilbo. Bilbo pondered what temptations he might be able to offer, and finally hit on one that he thought might work, although it was not very suitable for breakfast time. Still, one could not always stand on ceremony, and Bilbo got up and went into the pantry, where, on the shelf below the older dwarf’s sword, he found a large cake that he had baked the day before. He cut a slice of it and carried it back through to the kitchen, placing it beside his own plate.

“Would you like some cake?” he asked.

The little dwarf looked at the cake, and his eyes widened almost comically. His mouth fell open a little, and he took a step forward—apparently quite without meaning to, for a moment later he shook himself and stepped back again, shifting nervously.

“There’s nothing to be frightened of,” Bilbo said.

But it was clear the little dwarf was frightened. Frightened, and yet struggling with himself, for it was equally clear that he wanted the cake very much. He was staring at it, clutching the blanket tighter around himself, and he took a step forward and then stopped, an expression of extraordinary conflict on his face.

And Bilbo felt suddenly that he was being rather cruel. Certainly, it would have been nice to be trusted immediately, but if he had learned nothing else from his experiences with the two dwarves, he had learned that they had been very greatly frightened by something or someone. That something or someone had not been Bilbo, of course, nor anyone even remotely like Bilbo, and yet, they were children, and Bilbo could hardly fault them for not being able to easily dismiss their fear on finding themselves somewhere safe and warm.

“Well,” he said. “What about if I put it here?” He slid the cake about halfway down the table, then returned to his seat. “But I would very much like it if you would sit at the table,” he added. “I promise I won’t do anything to harm you.”

The little dwarf shifted from foot to foot, then came another step forward. This time, his progress across the room was not abrupt and darting, but slow and hesitant. One step, then a long pause, then another step, always shifting his gaze between Bilbo and the cake. Bilbo forced himself to sit calmly, with a smile on his face, and didn’t move even to pick up his teacup. And at last, the little dwarf reached the table. He eyed the cake, made to pick it up, and then stopped, hand hovering over it, looking at Bilbo.

“If you want to eat it in the living room, you can,” Bilbo said. “But I would prefer it if you sat in here, with me.”

The dwarf hesitated, staring at Bilbo, and Bilbo held his breath. Then the dwarf clambered onto the bench, arranging his blanket around him, and raised his eyebrows.

Bilbo’s smile broadened. “Very good,” he said. “Thank you.”

The dwarf seemed to take this as a signal to eat the cake, and eat it he did, almost faster than Bilbo could countenance, managing to cover a startlingly large area of the tabletop with crumbs as he did so. In no time at all, then, Bilbo found himself faced with an empty plate, a crumb-strewn table, and a little dwarf looking unsure what to do next. Not that Bilbo had much idea of that, himself.

“Hm,” he said. “You like cake, I see.”

The dwarf looked down at his empty plate, and then glanced at the pantry. He looked at his plate again, and then at Bilbo.

Bilbo couldn’t help but laugh. “Would you like some more?” he asked.

The little dwarf nodded immediately, eyes wide. He considered his plate for a moment, then picked it up and held it out to Bilbo. When Bilbo reached to take it, the little dwarf started backwards, but then seemed to shake himself and held steady while Bilbo took the plate from his hands.

“If I’m to be perfectly honest, cake is not really a very good thing for young dwarves to be eating for breakfast,” Bilbo said—although, in fact, he had not the first idea what it was that young dwarves were supposed to eat for breakfast, nor any other kind of dwarf, either, come to that. “But since you have been so ill and it is rather a special occasion—our first proper meal together—well, I suppose—”

By this stage in his disquisition, he was already in the pantry, cutting another thick slice of cake. When he returned, he saw that the little dwarf was watching him with intense focus. Or, no, in fact, not watching him—watching the cake.

“Here you are, then,” Bilbo said, putting the plate down on the table. The little dwarf waited until he had moved away, then slid the plate over to himself and tore into the cake, perhaps with slightly less haste than the previous slice, but still with remarkable speed and a complete lack of anything resembling table manners. Bilbo found himself torn between disgust and indulgence, and eventually plumped for the latter—for he had been concerned about the little dwarf’s lack of appetite for some time, now, and was most relieved to see it return.

And so, they had their strange little meal. Bilbo denied the little dwarf a third slice of cake, but instead made him toast with butter, and boiled eggs, and then fried up two sausages when his appetite appeared to be unquenched. The little dwarf watched him carefully and ate everything that was put in front of him with great abandon, until at last the last bite of food had disappeared, and Bilbo looked rather disapprovingly at the little dwarf’s face and hands, smeared now with butter and egg yolk.

“You should wash yourself,” he said. “Wash your face and hands. Do you know how?”

Silently, the little dwarf nodded, and when Bilbo pointed him to the basin, he stood up and went to make use of it, though he could barely reach and had to stand on tiptoe. Bilbo watched him, considering. The little creature could not have been living in the wilderness all his life, then. Someone had taught him how to wash, and Bilbo very much doubted that that someone was his equally ill-mannered brother. He considered asking the little dwarf about it, and then decided against it. He had only just got him to the stage of sitting at the table, after all, and there was no sense in throwing away that small amount of trust so soon after receiving it. Not to mention, the child was still refusing to speak.

The little dwarf came back from the basin and sat at the table, drying his hands on his blanket. He regarded Bilbo with an unblinking stare, and Bilbo stared back at him.

“Well,” he said, once the silence had become a little uncomfortable, “and how are you enjoying my hospitality, master dwarf? Do you like my hobbit hole?”

The little dwarf frowned, as if he did not quite understand the question, then cocked his head on one side and touched his chin.

“Is that an answer?” Bilbo said. “I did not understand it, if it was.”

The little dwarf touched his chin again, then pointed at Bilbo. He raised his eyebrows and touched his chin again.

“I’m sorry,” Bilbo said. “Do I have something on my chin, is that it?” He wiped his chin with his pocket handkerchief. “Is that better?”

The little dwarf made a rather frustrated face and opened his mouth, then closed it again with a snap, eyes widening. Bilbo pretended not to have noticed, and only raised an enquiring eyebrow.

“I’m afraid I don’t know your sign language,” he said.

The little dwarf grabbed his hair, then, and pulled it around under his chin, and then pointed insistently at Bilbo. Bilbo frowned, trying to understand, and then, light dawned.

“A beard?” he said. “You’re wondering why I don’t have a beard?”

The little dwarf nodded vigorously, and Bilbo chuckled.

“Well, am I to take it that adult male dwarves always have beards?” he said.

The little dwarf nodded again, though he looked like he wasn’t quite sure he understood the question. But he made a beard with his hair again and then pointed at Bilbo.

“Now, you see,” Bilbo said, “I am a hobbit. Hobbits do not generally have beards—in fact, most of us cannot grow them at all. Not that we would want to, of course.”

The little dwarf looked stunned by this revelation, though which part of it had caused that reaction, Bilbo was not sure.

“Have you ever met a hobbit before?” he asked.

The little dwarf shook his head slowly, then made a sort of twirling motion by his ear, pointing at Bilbo.

Bilbo sat up, feeling rather offended. “Are you asking if hobbits are mad?” he asked. “Just because we do not wear beards?”

The little dwarf shook his head again, then frowned in thought. He tugged at his hair, then twirled it round his finger and pointed at Bilbo.

“Oh,” Bilbo said, mollified. “Yes, I have curly hair. Hobbits do, as a rule. And we keep it shorter than yours, as well.”

The little dwarf nodded, as if that had been his next question, then stared at Bilbo’s hair with a fascinated sort of look on his face.

“Would you like to touch it?” Bilbo asked.

The little dwarf hesitated, then nodded, looking a little unsure.

“Come, then,” Bilbo said. He made to shuffle closer, but the little dwarf immediately began to withdraw, and Bilbo paused. “Well, I will sit here, and you can come and touch my hair if you want, or not, if you don’t,” he decided. He sat still, and, after a longish pause, the little dwarf edged along the bench until he was within arm’s reach. He hesitated, then reached out and took a lock of Bilbo’s hair between his fingers. He was very gentle at first, but quickly became absorbed, standing up on the bench and burying his hands in Bilbo’s hair, until Bilbo had to reach up and take him by the wrist.

“Don’t pull so hard, master dwarf,” he said. “My hair is attached to my head, you know.”

The dwarf looked contrite, and also a little frightened, and Bilbo let go of his wrist.

“It’s all right,” he said. “I know you didn’t mean it.” Even so, the little dwarf shuffled backwards a little on the bench, then sat down with his legs on the outside and glanced quickly at the door, as if he was making sure the route was still clear. Bilbo was reminded of the older dwarf’s behaviour a day or two before, when he had suddenly grown suspicious in the dark hallway and looked like he might be about to run away. Perhaps he did not much care for children, but nonetheless he was beginning to be quite furious with whoever had caused these two little dwarves to be so quick to take fright.

Fury, however, was not something he wanted to give in to at that moment, for the little dwarf was still staring at him warily, clutching his blanket tightly around himself. Bilbo decided it was time for a distraction.

“What else can I tell you about hobbits?” he asked. “Hm. Well, we are shorter than dwarves in general, or so I believe. I have never met a dwarf, you know—well, not a grown-up dwarf, anyway—but by all accounts we are quite the shortest of all the peoples of Middle Earth.”

The little dwarf blinked at him. Then he cocked his head on one side and frowned.

“Don’t you believe me?” Bilbo asked. He stood up. “Well? Do I look as tall as a grown-up dwarf?”

The dwarf frowned up at him, then stood up himself. He considered Bilbo for a moment or two, then held up his arms. Now it was Bilbo’s turn to frown.

“Is that a yes?” he asked. “Is it sign language?”

The little dwarf shook his head, and then climbed up on the bench and held out his arms like he wanted to give Bilbo a hug. It took a moment for Bilbo to realise that, indeed, that was what he did want.

“You want me to pick you up?” he asked.

The little dwarf nodded, and Bilbo, wondering what was behind this turn of events, reached out and picked him up around the waist. To his surprise, though, the little dwarf immediately started wriggling, and a moment later, slipped out of Bilbo’s grasp. Instead of falling down, though, he started climbing up—using Bilbo’s head and arms as handholds and footholds until he was sitting securely on Bilbo’s shoulders. It all happened so fast that Bilbo barely had time for more than an outraged splutter before the weight of the little dwarf settled across his shoulders and the back of his neck, his feet—very dirty-looking feet, Bilbo noticed—dangling against Bilbo’s chest.

“Master dwarf,” Bilbo said, “what on earth are you doing?” He felt rather as though he should be angry—at least irritated—but instead, he just seemed to be perplexed.

The dwarf made no answer, but after a few moments sitting on Bilbo’s shoulders, his weight shifted, and he began climbing down again. Once Bilbo understood what he was trying to do, he did his best to help, and in a very short time, the little dwarf was standing on the kitchen floor peering up at him with a thoughtful expression. After a long pause, he nodded.

“Yes?” Bilbo said. “Yes, what?”

The little dwarf thought for a moment, then held his hand at about shoulder height. He pointed at Bilbo, then held his hand rather higher and pointed at himself.

“Hm,” Bilbo said. “I’m not sure I understand. You want to be taller?”

The little dwarf shook his head, then repeated his series of gestures. Bilbo, thinking back to what they had been talking about before the sudden impromptu climbing episode, suddenly thought he understood.

“Oh!” he said. “You mean you agree that hobbits are shorter than dwarves?”

The little dwarf suddenly broke into a beaming smile, nodding vigorously. And Bilbo couldn’t help but smile back, though he was a little taken aback at how his simple remark about dwarven height had led to something so complicated. But then, as he considered it, he thought he understood: looking up at something tall from below, it was often quite difficult to judge its height, whereas standing on it and seeing how far away the ground was made the comparison much easier.

“Well, very clever,” he said. “Now, how is it that your feet are so dirty, master dwarf? My own feet are quite clean, and I have been walking around the exact same floors as you.”

The little dwarf looked down at his feet, then over at Bilbo’s. Then he looked up at Bilbo’s face in surprise, and back down at his feet, before getting on his knees and inspecting them much more closely—so closely, in fact, that Bilbo could feel the warmth of his breath stirring his foot-hairs.

“Oh, yes,” Bilbo said. “Hobbits also have quite large feet. Very sturdy, as well—we do not wear boots at all, you know.”

The little dwarf remained bent over Bilbo’s feet, hiding them from Bilbo’s view, and a moment later there was a very delicate touch to the top of the left one. Bilbo hid a smile, marvelling a little at how quickly the little dwarf had forgotten his fear in favour of curiosity. A moment later, though, the litte dwarf began stroking his right foot, and Bilbo couldn’t help but chuckle.

“I have never had anyone so fascinated by my feet before,” he said.

The little dwarf glanced up at him, cocked his head on one side, then went back to stroking Bilbo’s foot. After a moment or two he transferred his attentions to the left foot. Once he had poked and prodded this thoroughly, he sat back on the floor, frowned for a moment, and then—with remarkable flexibility—picked up his own left foot and brought it close to his face for inspection.

“Rather small, compared to mine,” Bilbo said. “And much dirtier! They need a wash, master dwarf.”

At that moment, the little dwarf yawned a jaw-cracking yawn. He looked a little surprised at himself, and then yawned again, even wider if anything.

“Hm,” Bilbo said. “Tired?”

The little dwarf shook his head vehemently, but his eyelids were drooping, and Bilbo felt sure that he could not yet be fully recovered from his illness.

“Come on, then,” he said. “Back to bed with you.”

The little dwarf’s face took on a pleading expression, but it seemed rather half-hearted, as if really he agreed that he ought to be back in bed. When Bilbo held out his hand, the dwarf scrambled to his feet without hesitation and took it. Bilbo, having intended the hand to help the dwarf up, rather than for him to hold once he was already on his feet, found himself a little taken aback. But he thought it might be rude to withdraw the hand now, so he folded it carefully round the child’s much smaller fingers and started walking towards the living room.

“Is your brother still asleep, do you think?” he asked, by way of making conversation.

The little dwarf nodded absent-mindedly. They had passed into the living room, and his attention seemed caught by something off to Bilbo’s left. Bilbo looked, and saw a large map hung on the wall. It showed most of Middle Earth, and it was a great hobby of Bilbo’s to look at all the homes of the elves and imagine what it might be like there. But now, a new use for the map crept into his mind.

“It’s a map,” he said, leading the little dwarf over to it and then finding a footstool for him to stand on so that he could look at it more easily. “It shows the world. Have you seen one before?”

The little dwarf nodded, examining the map with a fascinated expression. Bilbo waited, holding his breath. He watched where the little dwarf’s gaze was falling, hoping that it might give away where his home was. But when, at last, the dwarf did settle on one region of the map, Bilbo’s hopes were dashed. For the place he settled on was a little drawing of a single mountain, far to the east of the Shire, much too far away for the two dwarves to have come from there, even if they had been walking for months and months.

The little dwarf traced the picture of the mountain with his fingertips, and Bilbo sighed. The child was so young, he probably had not the first notion of where his home was located on a map. And certainly, he must not be able to read yet, and so would not be able to find it by looking at the names.

“Do you like mountains, then?” Bilbo asked.

The dwarf glanced around at him and nodded.

Bilbo let go of his half-formed hopes of finding out where the dwarves had come from, and smiled. “I do, too,” he said. “At least—I have never seen one, but I do rather like the idea of mountains.”

The little dwarf smiled back at him, then yawned again. Bilbo chuckled and helped him off the stool, then took his hand again and led him back to his bed. He tucked the blankets around him, and watched as he immediately loosened them again in his determination to get as much of his body pressed against the window as possible. On the other side of the glass, the older dwarf slept in a lump of hair and blankets.

“Sleep, then,” Bilbo said, and, once he was sure his instructions were being followed, he went back to the living room. He glanced briefly at the map as he passed, then looked more closely. The mountain that had caught the little dwarf’s attention was one he had never really noticed before, all alone as it was beside Mirkwood. The Lonely Mountain, the label read, and Bilbo felt a sudden, absurd rush of pity for this mountain, so divided from all its brethren. He wondered if that was what had attracted the little dwarf: here was something else that was lost, alone, and separated from all its kin.

“Oh, no, Bilbo Baggins,” he murmured to himself. “You are becoming very sentimental, not to mention ridiculous. It is only a great heap of rock, after all.”

And he shook his head at himself, and went to find some more breakfast.

Chapter Text

Bilbo had been rather hoping that he might have a quiet day like the one before, with the exception of his unusual breakfast companion. But his hopes were dashed: when he next went to give the little dwarf his medicine, he found that he was not in the bed. A moment’s terror sent Bilbo’s heart fluttering in his chest, before he realised that the little dwarf had not gone far at all: he was standing on top of a rickety old chest of drawers that stood deep in shadow in one corner of the room, prodding thoughtfully at a spiderweb.

“Master dwarf,” Bilbo said, once his throat had unfrozen. “What are you doing up there?”

The little dwarf turned and gave him a bright smile. He pointed at the spiderweb as if it was some kind of answer.

“You’re supposed to be in bed,” Bilbo said.

The little dwarf looked over at the bed, then made a bored face.

“Well, even so,” Bilbo said. “You won’t get better if you aren’t in bed. And if you don’t get better, you won’t be able to see your brother properly again.”

The little dwarf’s expression changed from mutinous to worried as Bilbo continued this short speech, and he ended up looking very unhappy. He chewed his lip, and then climbed down from the chest of drawers and crossed the room to the bed. Once he had climbed up onto it, Bilbo tucked the blankets around him, then gave him his medicine. The little dwarf swallowed it obediently enough, then turned and traced his fingers listlessly over the glass of the window. On the other side, the older dwarf still seemed to be asleep.

“Has he woken up at all this morning?” Bilbo asked.

The little dwarf nodded, still focussed on the glass. His shoulders were slumped, and he looked the picture of misery. Bilbo turned determinedly away—after all, it was quite true that the little dwarf needed to be in bed to get better. But some stubborn little voice in his mind pointed out that the little dwarf really didn’t look very ill at all any more, nor as though he was in need of more sleep, and oh, what a dingy, gloomy room it was to sentence a bright little soul to.

“Hush,” Bilbo muttered, but he glanced back over his shoulder and saw that, somehow, the little dwarf was looking even more tragic than he had been before, sitting with his knees drawn up and one arm wrapped around them while the other continued to trace patterns on the window. Bilbo made a concerted effort to harden his heart, in which he failed entirely.

“I have to make your brother something to eat,” he said. “He hasn’t eaten anything all day.” He paused. “Would you like to come and help me?”

The little dwarf, who had shown no evidence he could even hear Bilbo until the last sentence, sat up suddenly, face full of hope. He nodded so vigorously that Bilbo couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Well, come on, then,” he said.

The little dwarf needed no further urging, but bounded out of bed, grabbing at Bilbo’s hand as if he was afraid if he didn’t snatch it immediately, the offer would be withdrawn. Bilbo, surprised for the second time that day to find himself holding the little dwarf’s hand, took a moment to compose himself, and then led the way out of the room.

In the kitchen, Bilbo considered what they might all have for lunch. He supposed the older dwarf’s throat might still be sore, and decided that porridge would be an excellent choice.

“Now,” he said to the little dwarf, “can you get me some oats? Here’s a bowl—they are in the pantry.”

The little dwarf nodded and took the bowl, clutching it to his chest like a talisman, then made his way to the pantry. Bilbo smiled to see him so eager to help, and turned to the task of heating some water. He was not very long about this, however, when he was startled by the sound of a clattering crash from the pantry.

“Oh,” he said, hastening to the pantry door. When he arrived there, it was to find a scene of some chaos. The little dwarf was sitting on the floor, looking rather surprised and surrounded by a wilderness of spilled oats. Next to him were a number of items that seemed to have fallen off the pantry shelves, including—Bilbo saw to his horror—the older dwarf’s sword, which had been stored well above the little dwarf’s reach. Even as Bilbo watched, the little dwarf reached for it, and Bilbo jumped forward in alarm and scooped it up.

“Don’t touch that,” he snapped. “What do you think you’re doing?”

The little dwarf started and looked up at him, shuffling backwards on his bottom before struggling to his feet and crouching, pressing himself back into the shelves. He looked suddenly terrified, and Bilbo realised that not only was he looming rather, not to mention blocking the only escape route, but he was doing so with a sword in his hand. He sighed, then put the sword on the highest shelf and stood back.

“Did you climb on the shelves?” he asked.

The little dwarf swallowed and nodded.

“What for?” Bilbo asked.

There was a long pause, then the little dwarf pointed up at the higher shelf, where Bilbo had put the sword.

“You wanted your brother’s sword?” Bilbo asked.

The little dwarf nodded again, eyes on the ground now.

“What did you want it for?”

The little dwarf shrugged, and Bilbo sighed.

“Well, you can’t have it,” he said. “And you mustn’t go climbing on any more shelves. Or any furniture at all, come to that. It’s not very safe, you see. Understood?”

The little dwarf nodded quickly, and glanced up at Bilbo, face full of worry.

“Oh, I am not angry with you,” Bilbo said. “You startled me, that’s all. I was afraid you’d hurt yourself.” He paused, frowning. “You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?”

The little dwarf shook his head. He eyed Bilbo, and Bilbo stepped back out of the doorway.

“Come along, then,” he said. “We’ll worry about the mess later. But no more climbing, understand?”

He took another step back, and the little dwarf hesitated, then edged around the shelves into the doorway and quickly slipped sideways so he was standing with his back to the wall. He peered up at Bilbo, solemn-faced, and Bilbo wondered if any and every sharp word was going to cause such a reaction. How tiresome if so, for, given the little dwarf’s behaviour in the few hours since he’d been well and awake, it seemed like he might be quite in need of a firm hand.

Bilbo considered the dwarf, and the dwarf considered Bilbo. Bilbo felt not entirely pleasant, as though something of the easy spirit that had been between them in the morning had been jarred, and he wondered how he might mend it. At last, he had something of an idea, and he held out his hand.

“Shall we carry on, then?” he asked.

The little dwarf broke into a sunny smile and immediately seized his hand. He nodded, and Bilbo nodded back, relieved that he had found the right path.

“Well, I will make the porridge,” he said. “Why don’t you make some bread and honey? The bread is over there, and I will bring the honey from the pantry.” He closed the pantry door, locked it, and put the key in his pocket, deciding that no dwarves would be going in there in future. He led the little dwarf back to the kitchen, then pushed him gently in the direction of the bread, and turned back himself to fetch the necessary ingredients from the pantry, feeling as though perhaps he might learn quite quickly how to deal with his young visitors.

When he returned, laden with oats and honey, he discovered that he was much further behind in his learning than he had imagined. The little dwarf was standing on a stool he had dragged over for the purpose of reaching the sideboard. The loaf of bread was looking rather the worse for wear, having apparently had a large chunk hacked out of it. But the dwarf was not looking particularly healthy, either: there was a long gash across his palm, blood welling up and dripping onto the floor, and he was staring down at it with a stunned look on his face.

“Good gracious!” Bilbo said, setting down his burdens and hurrying over to the dwarf. “What have you done?”

It was quite obvious what the little dwarf had done, though. The bread knife lay abandoned on the sideboard next to two slices—or rather lumps, for they barely deserved the name slice—of bread, and Bilbo suddenly understood that the task he had set the child to do was one that was not suitable for a child at all. The dwarf looked up at him, face turning rather pale, and then, without warning, started to cry. It was not a loud, wailing cry, as Bilbo had often winced to hear from young hobbits who had fallen over and skinned their knees. Instead, he was almost silent, but the sight of tears streaming down his cheeks, accompanied by quiet sobs, clearly stifled with some effort of will, had quite as much of an effect on Bilbo as wailing might have done.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” Bilbo said, and without thinking much about it, he picked the dwarf up and moved him to sit on the table. When he tried to set him down, the little dwarf resisted strenuously, clinging to Bilbo’s neck with one arm, tears wet against Bilbo’s cheek.

“Oh, now, you must let go of me,” Bilbo said. “I need to fetch a bandage so I can make your hand better. You must let go, master dwarf, I insist.”

He peeled the little dwarf’s arm from around his neck, laying it in his lap then patting his good hand.

“I promise I will be back in just a moment,” he said, in the vain hope of removing the forlorn look from the little dwarf’s face. The little dwarf only swallowed, disconsolate tears still rolling down his cheeks. He had the look of a child who has been abandoned by all his family, and Bilbo felt torn between frustration at the amount of theatrics over what was, in the end, a rather minor injury, and an urge to do anything necessary to make the dwarf smile again.

“Here,” he said, holding out his pocket handkerchief. “Put that over your cut. There—good. Now, hold onto it, and I will be back in just a moment.”

He hurried off, fetching the pot of ointment that he used for cuts and bruises, along with a strip of bandage torn from an old shirt. When he returned, he found that the little dwarf was somehow looking even more mournful, the handkerchief quite red by now.

“You are bleeding quite a lot, aren’t you?” Bilbo said. “Let’s clean that up, shall we?”

He found another handkerchief and dipped it in some clean water from the ewer, then carefully wiped the blood from the little dwarf’s palm. Next, he applied the ointment. As he did so, the little dwarf drew in a sharp breath and pulled his hand away.

“Ow,” he said. “No, don’t, it hurts.”

Immediately after saying this, his eyes widened, and he clapped his injured hand to his mouth, following it with his uninjured one. He stared at Bilbo over his hands, eyes wide and frightened.

Bilbo, one hand still sticky with ointment, stood back a little and pondered how to proceed. If the little dwarf hadn’t had such a strong reaction to his slip, he might have been tempted to ignore it, but it would be hard to do so now. All the same, he had no desire to cause the skittish little creature to retreat again. Well, then.

“You don’t have to be frightened,” he said. “I already knew you could speak, you know. I have known since the first night you were in my home. I have heard you speak in your sleep many times.”

The little dwarf just stared at him, a worried frown forming on his face.

“It doesn’t make any difference,” Bilbo said. “You haven’t told me anything I didn’t already know, so you don’t have to be concerned. And I will certainly not tell anyone else, if you don’t want me to.”

For a moment or two, the little dwarf didn’t do anything. But then he took his hands away from his mouth and twisted them together in his lap. Bilbo winced to see that his cheeks and lips were smeared with blood, and he reached out and gently scrubbed at them with the handkerchief, pleased when the little dwarf didn’t pull back.

“What a messy little creature you are,” he said, but he tried to say it jovially, and he must have succeeded at least in part, because there was a brief spark of brightness underneath that anxious expression, and the little dwarf nodded.

“Oh, I’m not the first to tell you so?” Bilbo asked, smiling not so much to try and make the little dwarf feel better as because he found himself genuinely amused.

The little dwarf shook his head vigorously, produced a small smile himself—though still a rather nervous one—and then held out his injured hand. Bilbo wetted his handkerchief again and set to work cleaning it for a second time, then took up the ointment.

“This will sting, although I suppose you know that now,” he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t warn you before.”

The little dwarf chewed his lip and nodded, and Bilbo managed to apply the ointment without any further incident. He wrapped the little dwarf’s hand in the bandage, tied it securely, and stood back.

“There,” he said. “Better?”

The little dwarf considered his bandaged hand. He scrubbed at his face a little with his good hand, wiping away a stray tear.

“Hm,” Bilbo said. “I think I know what might make everything all right again.”

And he went to the pantry to fetch the cake.

****

Cake certainly did improve matters, and by the time he had finished his first slice, the little dwarf was looking much more cheerful, swinging his legs and once again managing to spread fragments of cake not only hither, but also thither and yon. Bilbo tutted a little, but could not find it in himself to be truly annoyed, despite the fact that in the few hours since the little dwarf had first appeared in the kitchen it had seen more mess created than in the several weeks leading up to that moment.

“I suppose you’re not very used to civilised eating,” he said, sweeping up the crumbs with a cloth. “Although—” He paused. Someone must have told the little dwarf he was messy, and it seemed unlikely that that would have happened while he was out in the wilderness leading a nomadic life—if, indeed, that was what the two dwarves had been doing before they came to Hobbiton. “Has anyone ever taught you table manners?”

The little dwarf nodded, licking cake crumbs from his fingers.

“Oh?” Bilbo said, determined not to look amused—after all, there was no sense in encouraging bad habits. “Who?”

The dwarf cocked his head on one side, and then made a serious of incomprehensible gestures, which included pointing at himself, at the ceiling, at his hair, and then making a furious face.

“Well, I have no idea what that means,” Bilbo said.

The little dwarf made the same series of gestures as before, and then raised his eyebrows.

“Hmph,” Bilbo said. “I don’t see how that’s supposed to help.”

The little dwarf looked rather like he thought Bilbo was being very stupid, and Bilbo sighed in frustration.

“It’s all very vexing,” he said. “I see no reason why you shouldn’t talk. I already know you can, and I can’t see how telling me about spiders and how much you like cake is a bad thing.”

The little dwarf looked suddenly anxious, and Bilbo sighed again.

“Well, I can’t make you,” he said. “I don’t want to upset you, certainly. But I simply do not understand why you won’t talk.”

He picked up the plates and turned away to put them in the sink, and so he wasn’t looking at the little dwarf when he suddenly spoke.

“I’m not supposed to,” he whispered.

Bilbo, startled, turned back around, to see that the little dwarf was casting worried glances at the door, as if he was expecting someone to burst in and shout at him at any moment.

“Not supposed to?” he asked. “Why not?”

The little dwarf swallowed. “Because I’m a—” He paused, a look on his face like he was searching for the correct word. “—a blabbermouth,” he finished.

“Are you, indeed?” Bilbo said. “Who told you that?”

The little dwarf just stared at him, and Bilbo opened his mouth to ask if his brother had told him, and then paused, considering something of a gamble.

“Did Fili tell you that?” he asked. “Your brother?”

The little dwarf nodded. “I tell people things I’m not supposed to,” he said. “So I’m not allowed to talk.”

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said. “Well, I hardly think that there’s anything you could tell me that would put either of you in any danger. I am only a hobbit, and I don’t know anything about dwarves and so on. So I’m sure you can talk to me.”

The little dwarf just shook his head, though. “I’m not allowed,” he said again.

“But you’re talking to me now, and nothing terrible is happening,” Bilbo pointed out.

Unfortunately, this had the opposite effect than he had hoped. The little dwarf’s eyes widened, and he clamped his lips shut and put his good hand over them. Bilbo sighed.

“You know, I wondered if maybe you just didn’t like talking,” he said. “But I suspect you do, don’t you?”

The little dwarf nodded, hand still over his mouth.

“Well, what a shame,” Bilbo said. “But maybe I can talk to your brother about it later. Now, then, let’s finish making lunch for him before everything goes stale.”

The rest of the making of lunch proceeded without any further hindrance. Bilbo made the porridge, having decided that the little dwarf was too young to be involved in anything to do with fire—for he had learned rather a lot from his experiences that day—and the little dwarf was set to with a blunt knife to spread butter and honey on bread and scones. Bilbo kept a close eye on him and did his best to prevent honey from being spread into every nook and cranny of the kitchen, and when the little dwarf began spreading it on the two mutilated lumps of bread he had created himself, he reached out and touched his arm.

“Not those,” he said. “I think we’ve enough with the slices I cut.”

The little dwarf paused, knife in one hand, lump of bread in the other. Bilbo winced as honey dripped off the knife onto the floor, and took the little dwarf’s wrist, steering it until the knife was over a plate. “Did you hear what I said?” he said. “We have enough bread now.”

The little dwarf looked at the bread in his hand, then back at Bilbo. He put the knife down—not on the plate, of course, Bilbo noted with an inward sigh—and pointed at himself, then at the bread. Then he held the bread out to Bilbo.

“I’m not sure what that means,” Bilbo said. “Do you want me to take it?”

The little dwarf shook his head, then pointed insistently at the bread, and then himself, and then the bread.

“Can you say it out loud?” Bilbo asked, hoping that the frustration of being unable to make himself understood might break the dwarf’s self-imposed silence. But the dwarf only shook his head, eyes a little wide, then pointed at himself again. It was only when he reached for the bread-knife that still lay discarded on the sideboard that Bilbo understood.

“Oh, no, don’t touch that,” he said, leaping forward and snatching it away from the little dwarf’s grasping hand. And then—“Oh, you mean to say that you cut those—pieces of bread?”

The little dwarf nodded vigorously and pointed at himself.

“Well, yes, you did,” Bilbo said. “But they’re rather—”

And then he stopped. Stopped, and reconsidered, trying to imagine what it might be like to be very small and trying hard to do things that were rather too difficult.

“You want to give your brother the ones you made?” he said, not sure if he was interpreting correctly.

The little dwarf beamed at him, and then picked up the butter knife and dipped it back into the jar of honey, proceeding to spread a thick layer on the lump of bread. Bilbo half-opened his mouth, then closed it again.

“I suppose it can’t do any harm, after all,” he murmured to himself, and went to stir the porridge. By the time he looked back, the little dwarf had managed to coat almost the entirety of the two lumps of bread in honey. Bilbo frowned, beginning to think that perhaps he should never take his eyes off the child at all.

“How is he going to pick them up, master dwarf?” he asked.

The little dwarf looked up at him, then picked up one of the lumps, not seeming to care that in doing so he liberally coated his fingertips with honey.

“Hmph,” Bilbo said, wondering how on earth anyone ever managed to look after children for more than a few minutes without becoming quite mad. But still, there was no sense in complaining about it now—the honey could not be removed from the bread, and no doubt the older dwarf would have the good sense not to smear it all over himself.

“Put it down,” he said to the little dwarf, and, once he had obeyed, “Go and wash your hands, now. They’re very sticky.”

The little dwarf cheerfully went to wash his hands, and Bilbo collected the plate of bread and honey and the bowl of porridge and made his way towards the older dwarf’s room. The little dwarf followed behind him, and went into his own room when asked—for although Bilbo rather thought he was much better, there was still no sense in risking him catching his brother’s cold. By the time Bilbo came into the older dwarf’s room—Fili, he reminded himself, that seemed to be the older dwarf’s name—the little one was already pressing his nose against the glass.

“Wake up, master dwarf,” Bilbo said, pleased to see that the dwarf’s—Fili’s—breathing seemed much less congested. “You must eat something.”

Fili stirred, then opened his eyes. A flash of confusion crossed his face when he saw Bilbo, but—to Bilbo’s relief—it was short-lived. Before he even acknowledged Bilbo’s presence, however, he turned to look for his brother. Seeing him kneeling up on the bed, pressed up against the glass, he seemed to relax a little. He signed something, and the little one replied. Then Fili turned back to Bilbo.

“When is he going to be better?” he asked.

“I rather think he is already well on his way,” Bilbo said. “And you seem to be, too, after all that sleep. But we will have to wait for Lily to give her opinion before the two of you can see each other properly again.”

Fili grimaced, then turned his attention to the food. He stared at the two lumps of honey-soaked bread, frowning.

“What is that?” he asked.

The little dwarf knocked on the window, then, and, when Fili turned to look at him, he pointed frantically at the bread and made some signs, clumsy in his haste. He was smiling hopefully, but Fili had no answering smile.

“What is that?” he said again, but more sharply this time, and looking not at the bread, but at his brother. He got to his knees on the bed and got closer to the window. “What happened to your hand?”

Bilbo felt a sudden sinking feeling in his stomach. The little dwarf signed again, and now it was clear that at least some of his clumsiness was due to his injured hand. But whatever it was he said, it was enough for Fili to make a wordless exclamation and turn sharply to look at Bilbo.

“You hurt him,” he said, eyes flashing.

“Excuse me?” Bilbo said, beginning to feel rather annoyed. “I most certainly did not! He cut himself on the bread knife—I had nothing to do with it.”

“He’s hurt his hand!” Fili said, voice rising. “Why’d you give him a knife? Why were you even with him in the first place? You wanted him to hurt himself!”

“For goodness’ sake, master dwarf!” Bilbo cried. “You are being quite ridiculous! Why on earth would I want to hurt your brother?”

Fili stood up on the bed, and for a rather terrifying moment, Bilbo thought he was going to attack him. But then he swung sharply round and signed something at the little dwarf, movements sharp and vicious. The little dwarf, smile long gone now, shook his head, signing something back.

“You don’t know that,” Fili said, then signed something else. Whatever it was, it was enough to cause the little dwarf to pull back from the window, his face a picture of misery.

Bilbo opened his mouth to reprimand Fili for—well, he wasn’t quite sure what for, but being needlessly snappish to his brother would certainly be part of it—and then closed it again. The young dwarf was sitting on the bed now, and, if the little one had looked upset when he retreated from the window, the older one did not look much better. He certainly scowled at Bilbo when Bilbo cleared his throat, but it was a half-hearted scowl, and he seemed to be barely restraining a bout of tears.

“Hmph,” Bilbo said. “You are being very foolish, although I’m sure you know that, deep down. But you must eat anyway. Eat, and get better, and then maybe you’ll be able to have a civilised conversation without shouting at people for no reason at all.”

He rather expected the dwarf to snarl at him, but all he did was wipe his nose on the back of his hand and stare disconsolately at the food Bilbo had brought. Bilbo, hoping to mend things as quickly as possible, pointed to the two misshapen lumps of bread.

“Your brother cut those for you,” he said. “He put the honey on them, too. He was very excited to be able to give you something.”

Fili’s face crumpled a little, and Bilbo nodded.

“Well, I will leave you be,” he said, and slipped out of the room.

He didn’t go back to the kitchen, though, but instead went into the little dwarf’s room. The dwarf was not in the bed, but this time Bilbo did not take fright right away, but instead looked carefully around, and at last saw a small, dirty foot sticking out from behind the head of the bed. Bilbo had pulled the bed forward away from the wall a short distance so that it would be next to the window, and when he stepped forward and peered into the narrow, dark space that he been created, he found the little dwarf staring up at him, eyes bright with tears.

Bilbo sighed and crouched down.

“I hope your brother didn’t say anything too cruel to you,” he said.

The little dwarf sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Bilbo closed his eyes briefly, restraining his exasperation, and produced a handkerchief.

“Here,” he said. “It’s really not very good manners to use your sleeve, you know.”

The little dwarf gave him a blank look, and Bilbo decided that perhaps that was a battle for another time.

“I’m sure he didn’t mean to be so angry,” he said. “And really, you know, he was angry with me, not with you, although he does seem to have rather taken it out on you.”

The little dwarf hunched his shoulders, looking hunted.

“I’m not allowed to talk to you,” he whispered. “Go away.”

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said. He sat down on the floor, feeling his knees protest his prolonged crouching. “Well, you don’t have to talk to me, if you don’t want.” He paused, wondering what to say next. The little dwarf was clearly very upset, but since Bilbo didn’t know what had been said—apart from, apparently, the repeated prohibition on talking—it was hard to know how to comfort him.

“Your brother thinks I mean to hurt you,” he said at last. “That’s why he told you not to talk to me, isn’t it?”

The little dwarf peered up at him through his unruly fringe, then nodded slightly.

“What about you?” Bilbo asked. “Do you think I mean to hurt you?”

The little dwarf’s mouth twitched.

“No,” he whispered. “I think you’re nice.”

Bilbo couldn’t help but smile at that, feeling rather pleased despite the situation. “Well, I’m not sure I’m the nicest hobbit in the world,” he said. “In fact, I suspect I may be rather grumpy. But on the whole, I am certainly against hurting people, and especially children. So you don’t need to worry.”

The little dwarf chewed his lip. “I’m not supposed to talk to you,” he whispered again, looking thoroughly disconsolate.

“No, apparently not,” Bilbo said. “Well—did your brother say you weren’t allowed to hug me?”

The little dwarf blinked at him, then shook his head. Bilbo smiled.

“Come on, then,” he said, and opened his arms. And the little dwarf made the most pitiful expression of gratitude and darted forward, wrapping his arms around Bilbo’s neck and burying his face in Bilbo’s chest. Bilbo hugged him close, and put one hand on the back of his head.

“There, there,” he murmured. “There, there.”

Perhaps he often found he did not know what to say to the child, but, he pondered as the little creature burrowed deeper into his embrace, perhaps sometimes he did not need to say anything at all.

****

The little dwarf seemed determined to stay hiding in the space behind the bed for the time being, and, after spending some time trying to persuade him out, Bilbo gave in and found him some cushions and a blanket, then got to his feet and went to see whether the other one had finished his lunch yet. As he went, he wondered to himself how it was that he seemed to be spending all his time attending to dwarves all of a sudden. Any hopes of a quiet day had long since faded, and he thought briefly once again of how he was going to find someone to take the dwarves off his hands, if both their parents were dead. But he had not much time to think, since it was only a few steps from one room to the other, and so he stowed these thoughts away and steeled himself to deal with Fili’s anger.

But when he entered the room, the dwarf did not seem angry at all. He was sitting on his bed, knees drawn up in front of him, and he looked—well, he looked almost the mirror image of the little dwarf hiding behind the bed in the other room. His expression was forlorn indeed, and although the red soreness of his eyes might have been simply a symptom of his illness, Bilbo rather thought it was something else. He had been prepared to stand firm against a tirade, but now suddenly he found himself confronted with something else entirely, and he stood still, rather at a loss.

“You haven’t eaten any lunch, master dwarf,” he said at last.

Fili looked up at him and swallowed, blinking hard. And Bilbo, feeling quite at sea, took a chair, and sat down next to the bed.

“I’m not going to hurt your brother, you know,” he said. “I’m not going to hurt either of you. If I’d wanted to, I could have done so, many times over. But I don’t, and so I haven’t. Don’t you see?”

“Leave me alone,” Fili whispered, and Bilbo sighed.

“I would like to,” he said. “But unfortunately you are a guest in my home, and as such, I am responsible for your welfare. You must eat something, and you must stop being so unhappy all the time. It is certainly not good for your health.”

Fili started to wipe his nose on his hand, then paused and pulled out a crumpled handkerchief from under his pillow. “Is my brother all right?” he asked.

“Well, I think you rather scared him,” Bilbo said carefully. “He was quite upset.”

“I just want him to be careful,” Fili muttered. “It’s not safe.”

Bilbo felt rather ill-equipped to reply to this, as of course he was the not safe person in question, and he was really rather tired of protesting his innocence, especially since it never seemed to do any good. “Hm,” he said, after something of an awkward silence. “But now you both seem miserable. That can’t be what you were hoping for, surely? To make your brother miserable?”

Fili looked up at him sharply. “I didn’t—” he stared, and then looked stricken. “I didn’t mean to,” he said, voice low. “But he—he’s always telling people things he shouldn’t, and—I told him not to.”

“He didn’t tell me anything,” Bilbo said. “He just came out to eat some breakfast with me. I think he was quite bored and lonely on his own, with you asleep.”

“He could have woken me up,” Fili insisted. “Or you could. I could have come out and watched him, and then he wouldn’t have got hurt.”

“Really, master dwarf,” Bilbo said. “You are ill, and you need rest. Your brother is well, and he needs to be allowed out of bed. He certainly doesn’t need you to make yourself even more ill trying to watch him every moment of the day.”

Fili sneezed suddenly, three times in quick succession, and then dolefully wiped his nose (on the handkerchief, Bilbo was pleased to see). “When will I be better?” he asked, and the way he said it was so plaintive and childish that Bilbo found himself rather overwhelmed with sympathy.

“Quite soon, I am sure,” he said. “Why, your brother recovered from a much more serious illness very quickly indeed. I think perhaps you dwarves are rather hardy folk.”

Fili brightened a little at this—as Bilbo had known he would—and sat up straighter. “We are the hardiest of all the peoples of Middle Earth,” he said—or perhaps intoned was the more appropriate description. “We were carved from stone by Mahal himself.”

“Were you, indeed?” Bilbo said. “How very curious. But, now, why don’t we make an arrangement of some kind?”

“An arrangement?” Fili said. “What arrangement?”

“Well, you will allow your brother to spend time out of bed, and I will promise you to look after him as well as anyone could, and to bring him to see you at least every hour, so that you can see that he’s all right. And I won’t ask him any questions about anything important or even try to make him talk—I’ve grown rather used to him being quiet, anyway. How would that be?”

Fili sat and chewed on his lip and twisted his handkerchief between his hands, and Bilbo saw in his face the weight of responsibility that he bore—far greater than should be on the shoulders of a child so young.

“How do I know you won’t try to take him away?” he said at last.

“Where would I take him?” Bilbo asked. “This is my home. Why, I haven’t stirred more than twenty miles from my doorstep this year.”

Fili frowned anxiously, and Bilbo had a sudden moment of inspiration.

“What if I give you something?” he asked. “Something very valuable to me. And then you can keep it, and I will know that if I ever try to take your brother, I will not get it back.”

“What—what thing?” Fili asked.

It took Bilbo a moment to think of something, but when he did, he leapt to his feet.

“I will go and fetch it,” he said. “Wait a moment.”

He hastened off to the living room, and there he found a small portrait of his mother and father hanging over the mantelpiece. It was the only picture that he had of them, and he treasured it greatly. He paused a moment before taking it down, wondering if maybe he should choose something less valuable—what if the dwarf had a fit of rage and decided to destroy it regardless?

But no. No, he felt that he ought not to deal in an underhanded way with Fili, especially since it rather seemed as though he and his brother had been dealt very badly to in the past. Even so, he stood with the portrait in his hands for a long moment before setting off back towards the bedroom.

“I’m sure he will take good care of you,” he said to it at last. “After all, he wants me to take good care of his brother.”

And, having thus reassured himself, he hurried back.

“Here,” he said when he reached the bedroom, holding out the portrait. Fili took it and gave him a curious look. “My parents,” he explained. “Dear departed, you know. The only picture I have.”

Understanding dawned on Fili’s face. “Oh,” he said, and then, “I’m sorry they died.”

“Oh, well, it was years ago, now,” Bilbo said. “But—thank you, yes. One does never quite get over it.”

Fili looked like he agreed, and Bilbo wondered again about his parents—were they truly dead, as he had said? He certainly looked as though he understood what Bilbo was feeling, which surely was not normal for a child his age. Well, in any case.

“And that’s good enough, is it?” Bilbo asked. “You will let your brother spend time in the kitchen and living room?”

Fili considered for a long moment, staring down at the portrait. Then he laid it carefully on the table beside the bed, and nodded.

“Good,” Bilbo said, feeling quite relieved. He opened his mouth to say something else, but then stopped. Fili was not paying any attention to him any more, but instead was kneeling up on the bed, knocking on the window. He opened his mouth, then looked quickly back at Bilbo and cleared his throat. Then he said something that Bilbo didn’t understand at all—indeed, it was not even in a language he recognised. Half the sounds seemed to be made deep in the chest, and it rumbled in a way that seemed very odd coming from a child’s throat.

Whatever it was he said, though, it had an immediate effect. On the other side of the glass, a shadow popped up from behind the bed. There wasn’t enough light in the little dwarf’s room to see his face, but Fili signed something to him, and a moment later he was scrambling up onto the bed, kneeling on the other side of the window and signing himself, face anxious and eyes bright.

Fili signed in response, then hunched his shoulders. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”

The look of relief on the little dwarf’s face, even filtered through the dirty glass, was quite something to behold. He did cry, then, just a few tears, but immediately afterwards he started signing frantically and pointing at something behind Fili. Fili turned around and saw the honey-soaked lumps of bread, and his lips twitched into a fond smile—perhaps the first smile Bilbo had seen from him. He shuffled across the bed on his knees, picked up one piece, and took a gigantic bite.

“Yum,” he said, spraying crumbs across the bed. “This is delicious.”

On the other side of the window, the little dwarf’s face lit up, and Bilbo couldn’t help but smile. The little dwarf signed something, and Fili shook his head.

“Not yet,” he said. “I’m not properly better yet. But Mr Bilbo says probably soon. He says dwarves are really good at getting better. He thought it was really good you got better so fast.”

The little dwarf beamed at Bilbo and nodded frantically, pointing at himself.

“Yes, I was very impressed,” Bilbo said, which somehow led to an increase in the speed of the little dwarf’s nodding, until Bilbo started to worry he would give himself a headache. The little dwarf was distracted from his violent affirmation, though, by Fili who said something else to him in that strange, rumbling language, and then leaned his forehead against the glass. The little dwarf stared at him, face suddenly solemn, then shuffled up to the window and mirrored Fili’s position, so that if the glass had not been there they would have had their foreheads pressed together. He laid his palm on the glass, and Fili pressed his own up on the other side. And all of a sudden, Bilbo began to feel rather like he was intruding.

“Well,” he said, and then, much quieter, “well.”

And he slipped away and left them to it.

Chapter Text

Lily did not come to visit that day, but Bilbo was quite sure that she would on the morrow. He felt that, once both dwarves were fully recovered and did not need to be separated any more, the elder might begin to feel more comfortable and less nervous, and when that happened, he hoped he might be able to safely raise the subject of whether they had any family or friends, and if so, how he might go about alerting them to the presence of their kinsmen in his home. It was with these hopeful thoughts that he went to sleep that night. But when he awoke in darkness to the sound of a dreadful scream echoing through the hobbit hole, he had no thoughts at all but a sudden, heart-stopping terror.

It wasn’t until the scream came again that Bilbo became aware enough of his surroundings to understand what was happening. And when he did understand, his terror for himself was immediately overwhelmed by a different kind of fear, a fear that brought with it a sort of determination. For he had recognised the voice—the little dwarf whose name he still did not know—and for all that a few moments before he had been paralysed by the thought that he might come to some sort of harm, that suddenly seemed oddly insignificant next to the possibility that something terrible might be happening to that defenceless little creature. So he threw himself from the bed, took up the nearest heavy object—a metal candlestick with three branches, rather more decorative than useful—and began to move as quietly and swiftly as possible towards the dwarves’ rooms.

As he did so, the screaming continued, and it froze his blood to hear it, so full of terror it was. Still, he did not hesitate in his steps, but almost ran through the living room, heart thundering in his chest, clenching his hands around the candlestick until they began to ache from it.

When he arrived in the doorway of the little dwarf’s room, though, he found there was no need for his candlestick at all—except, perhaps, in order to give light. For the little dwarf’s room was empty except for the dwarf himself, who was lying tangled in the bedclothes, eyes open and staring at nothing, shrieking into the darkness.

Bilbo stood in the doorway, quite dumbfounded, until he heard a knocking at the window between the two rooms. He looked, and saw the older dwarf standing pressed against the glass, face a picture of anxiety, pointing wildly at the little one.

“Wake him up, Mr Bilbo,” he called. “I’ve been shouting but he doesn’t hear me.”

And then, of course, Bilbo understood, and he set his candlestick down and ran to the bed, shaking the little dwarf by the shoulder—rather harder than he intended, for the screaming was setting his teeth on edge.

“Wake up, master dwarf,” he said. “Wake up! Wake up!”

The little dwarf showed no signs of waking, but only continued to scream, and Bilbo clenched his jaw and took him by both shoulders, shaking him hard.

“Wake up!” he said again.

And then the little dwarf gasped and jerked under his hands. His eyes rolled wildly for a moment, and then his gaze settled on Bilbo and he screamed again, scrambling backwards out of Bilbo’s grasp.

“No,” he said, breathless and pale. “No, no, Fili! No, Fili! Fili!”

“Master dwarf!” Bilbo cried. “Please try to calm down, you’ll make yourself ill.”

But the little dwarf had scuttled into the corner of the bed, just as he had several days before when he had finally awoken properly from his fever. This time, though, it seemed he was not truly awake at all; or at least, he did not seem to recognise Bilbo, and held up his hands before him defensively.

“Fili!” he shouted, voice rising in pitch. “Fili!”

Then there was another voice, this one from the other side of the window.

“Kili,” Fili called, knocking furiously on the window. “Kili, wake up. I’m here, I’m here, look over here.”

The little dwarf’s head jerked around, and he stared wildly at the window.

“Fili!” he half-shrieked, and in moments he was at the glass, scrabbling at it with his fingertips, breath sobbing in his throat. “Fili, don’t let them get me. Fili, come and help me! Come and help, they’re going to get me!”

Fili pressed his palms against the window, his face filled with a kind of desperate sorrow.

“No-one’s going to get you. I’m here, I’m looking after you. No-one else is here, just Mr Bilbo. He’s nice, you said he was nice. Wake up, you’ve got to wake up, now.”

“I’m awake,” the little dwarf said, and now his voice suddenly fell to a whisper, and he sank down on the bed, curling over himself until he seemed barely visible amongst the rumpled topography of the counterpane. “I’m awake,” he whispered. “I’m awake, they’re not coming. No-one’s coming. Where’s my mama?”

And then he began to cry, soft sobs that were no less desperate-sounding for their lack of volume.

Fili sank to his knees on the other side of the window, palms still pressed up against the glass. “Don’t cry,” he said. “Sh, don’t cry. It’s all right. I’m looking after you.”

The little dwarf took no notice of his instructions, though, but kept on weeping, and Fili looked up at Bilbo with a pleading expression.

“Help him, Mr Bilbo,” he said.

Bilbo, whose poor heart was already rather in tatters, felt a fresh pang from the look of helpless misery on the older dwarf’s face. He found himself rather afraid of coming too close to the little dwarf—afraid his presence might set off another fit of screaming—but he could hardly refuse such a plea, and so he climbed onto the bed and edged closer, holding out his hands to show that they were clearly empty—not that the little dwarf was looking, his face buried in his knees.

“Hello, master dwarf,” he said in a low tone that he hoped was somewhat soothing. “Remember me? I’m your friend, Mr Bilbo. I’m not going to hurt you.”

The little dwarf didn’t respond to this in the slightest, and Bilbo, worried that he might not be fully aware that someone was on the bed with him, hesitated a moment. But one look at Fili’s face through the dirty glass of the window had him moving forward again.

“Here, now,” he said. “Here, now, young master dwarf. I think you’ve had a very unpleasant dream, and perhaps you need someone to comfort you. Here, now.” And he laid a cautious hand on the little dwarf’s shoulder. When this did not immediately produce any violent response, Bilbo shuffled a little further forward and carefully drew the sobbing ball of dwarf and blankets into his arms.

“Sh, now,” he said. “There, there. It’s all right, now.”

The little dwarf made no move to return Bilbo’s embrace—in fact, quite the opposite. He stayed rigid and curled up, and even seemed to be sobbing the harder for being touched.

“Fili,” he hiccupped. “Where’s Fili? Where’s my mama?”

“I’m here,” Fili called from the other side of the window. “I’m here, I’m here.” He swallowed, eyes large in the dim light. Then he opened his mouth and started to sing. The song was a strange one, not at all like the kinds of cheerful songs that hobbits liked to sing, sung in a minor key with words that Bilbo did not understand, and even though Fili’s voice quavered rather, it made Bilbo’s heart ache with a sense of longing and loss and beauty. In his arms, the little dwarf grew still, head lifting just a little, and Bilbo stroked his back and tried to think comforting thoughts.

And so they were, for a little while: Fili kneeling on the other side of the window singing his dwarvish song, and Bilbo sitting with the little dwarf in his arms. As the song wound on, the little dwarf’s sobs subsided, though they did not quite abate; and he uncurled himself gradually until he was clinging to Bilbo, face buried in Bilbo’s chest. Bilbo rocked him gently, and made quiet murmuring shushing noises of the sort that he hoped were quite soothing, and when the song finally ended, he smiled at Fili.

“Well done,” he said. “And thank you.”

Fili nodded, still looking quite, quite anxious. “Is he asleep?” he asked.

Bilbo shook his head. The little dwarf was still crying very quietly, but he seemed to have lost all the desperate fear and energy that he had had before, and now was limp in Bilbo’s arms, a heavy weight of misery. “I think he will be soon, though,” he said. “You should go to sleep, yourself.”

But Fili only sat on the bed, staring miserably through the window, and Bilbo thought that he understood. His own heart was still beating too fast, the little dwarf’s blood-chilling shrieks still echoing in his mind, and he thought it would be a long time before he was calm enough to fall asleep again, even once he was able to go back to his own bed.

In the event, though, Bilbo never returned to his own bed at all that night. He sat with the little dwarf in his arms until the poor creature seemed at last to have fallen asleep, and then he tried to lay him down in his bed. But as soon as he began to detach himself, the little dwarf began to struggle, clinging to Bilbo with all his might.

“No,” he whimpered. “No, Mr Bilbo, don’t leave me. They’ll come and get me.”

“No-one will come and get you,” Bilbo said. “There’s no-one here but me and your brother. You are quite safe, I promise.”

“No, no,” the little dwarf moaned. “No, please. Please don’t leave me.”

And what could Bilbo do in the face of such a plea? Nothing but settle back down and tighten his arms around the dwarf, and consider that at least now there was no actual danger of death, and the dwarf seemed to know him. Other than that, though, it was so reminiscent of the long night when the little dwarf had been ill that Bilbo found himself wondering how much sleep he would lose before the dwarves were finally out of his home.

On the other side of the window, Fili watched him, pale and unhappy. But eventually, after perhaps two hours, he fell asleep, still sitting upright and leaning against the window. Bilbo sighed to see him looking so uncomfortable.

“Your brother loves you very much,” he murmured to the little dwarf.

The little dwarf stirred—not asleep, then—and his grip on Bilbo tightened a little. “When can he come in here?” he asked.

“Soon, my lad,” Bilbo said. “Soon, now.”

It occurred to him that he could no longer pretend he didn’t know the older dwarf’s name—not after the little one had been shrieking it to the high heavens—and, to his surprise, he realised that he now knew the little one’s name, too. The older one had called out to him—not thinking about secrecy in that moment, and no wonder—and he had said the name Kili. Well, Bilbo presumed it was a name, at least. He shuffled back along the bed until his back was at the headboard, and peered down at the bundle of hair and blankets in his arms.

“Kili, is it?” he murmured.

The little dwarf snuffled. “Mama,” he mumbled, and Bilbo realised he was, at last, beginning to fall asleep.

And not long after that, Bilbo fell asleep, too.

****

Bilbo awoke stiff, sore, and not entirely sure where he was. He became aware of the solid weight resting on his legs and stomach before he became quite able to discern what it might be, and he suffered a moment of panic before his memories resolved themselves and he recognised the bed, the room, and the little dwarf curled up on his lap, barely visible in his protective covering of blankets. The room was very dim, the candles having burned themselves out, and the only light filtering through the window from the other room. Bilbo shuffled himself a little until he could see through, and saw that it seemed to be day—at least, there was light shining through the crack in the curtains in Fili’s room.

“Hm,” he muttered to himself, feeling rather foggy and not in a particularly pleasant mood. “Breakfast, then.”

He considered the dwarf on his lap, and then bent over a little and tried to move him onto the bed so that he could escape. Unfortunately, the little dwarf—Kili—woke up abruptly, and blinked up at Bilbo, face looking puffy from crying and lack of sleep.

“Go back to sleep, now,” Bilbo said in a low voice. “I’ll bring you some breakfast in a while.”

He gently pushed the little dwarf off his lap, tucked the blankets around him as best he could, and then stood up—or tried, anyway, taking a minute or two to be able to straighten up properly and fully revive the feeling in his legs. He became aware that the little dwarf was watching him, and he smiled.

“Sleep, now,” he said.

He made his way out of the room and peered into Fili’s room to see that he was sleeping sitting up, forehead leaning against the window to his brother’s room. He looked exhausted even in his sleep, and Bilbo sighed and turned to go to the kitchen, only to almost fall over Kili, who was standing immediately behind him, barely visible in the dimness. He clapped his hand to his mouth to stifle a scream, and then was forced to take a moment or two to compose himself, heart thudding in his throat. Once he was sure he wasn’t going to shout, he took his hand away from his mouth and drew a deep breath.

“What are you doing out here?” he whispered. “I told you to go to sleep.”

The little dwarf looked up at him with a doleful expression. He made no move to go back to his room, but instead reached up and fumbled at Bilbo’s hand with his own. Bilbo took his hand—it was rather cold—and led him into the bedroom, helping him back up onto the bed and tucking him in.

“Go to sleep,” he said.

He reached the kitchen this time before he saw a shadow out of the corner of his eye and realised that the little dwarf was following him again. He paused, looking down, and found that the little creature was following so closely behind him that Bilbo could barely see him, hidden behind his legs as he was. He turned and stepped back, frowning, and the little dwarf hunched his shoulders and shuffled forwards a little way, as if he did not want to be too far away from Bilbo. He made an odd sight indeed, his hair in disarray, trailing blankets behind him and looking quite forlorn.

“Why are you following me?” Bilbo asked. “Don’t you want to stay in bed, where it’s warm? I’m sure you are quite exhausted after last night.”

Indeed, the child looked worn out, his eyes shadowed and face pale. But he shook his head and shuffled a little closer still, reaching out and clutching the cloth of Bilbo’s trousers with one hand, while the other kept his blanket from falling from around his shoulders.

“Hmph,” Bilbo said. “Lonely, I suppose? Is that what it means?”

The little dwarf just blinked up at him. The lively interest of the day before had vanished completely, it seemed, smothered beneath the weight of the nightmare and leaving only a dull misery.

“Well,” Bilbo said, and then, again, “Well.” He felt he ought to put the child back to bed again—it was quite obvious he needed more sleep—but he could not quite bring himself to do so. And besides, how would he keep him there? He had already tried twice, and it had had no effect at all. “All right, then,” he decided at last. “Are you warm enough?”

The little dwarf nodded solemnly, but Bilbo felt it could not be true—the house was very chilly, the fires all nothing but embers, and the dwarf was wearing nothing but a long shirt and a blanket—and he set about lighting the fires, and setting water on for tea, and generally doing his best to make everything cheerful and cosy in the hope that it might help lift his little guest’s spirits. Everywhere he went, Kili followed behind him—sometimes rather too close behind, and on one occasion Bilbo had to shoo him away from the fire. Eventually, Bilbo took to holding his hand at all times so that at least he would know where he was. The hand that he took was colder even than it had been before, and as soon as the water was boiling, Bilbo made a cup of tea and set it on the table, then pointed at the bench.

“Sit there and drink your tea,” he said. “I will finish making breakfast.”

The little dwarf stayed where he was, standing by Bilbo’s side and clutching his hand. Bilbo led him over to the bench and pointed.

“Sit,” he said again. “Tea. Come, now, don’t be foolish.”

He picked the child up and tried to put him down on the bench. But as soon as the dwarf was in his arms, he wrapped his own short arms around Bilbo and clung on tightly, and when Bilbo tried to put him down, he found he couldn’t.

“For goodness’ sake,” he muttered to himself, and then, louder, “Master dwarf, you are being absurd. How can I make breakfast if you won’t let go of me? I know you had an unpleasant dream, but you will feel better if you will only drink some tea.”

This produced no effect whatsoever, and Bilbo sighed in exasperation, tried again to remove the little dwarf—though without too much in the way of force—and finally gave in. After all, there was no particular hurry.

“All right, then,” he said, sitting down on the bench himself, and then shifting the little dwarf until he was seated comfortably in Bilbo’s lap, facing the table. “Here. Is that what you wanted? Drink your tea.”

And he picked up his own cup of tea, feeling quite put out. After a moment, young Kili followed suit, and Bilbo decided to do his best to be pleased that he had finally found the solution, rather than irritated about what that solution was.

He did not entirely succeed.

****

By the time Bilbo had been up and about for two hours, he was beginning to think the day would never end. Having seated Kili in his lap, he found that the child became somehow even more apt to cling than he had been before, and on the few occasions when Bilbo managed to persuade him to stand on his own two feet, he looked so desperately sad that Bilbo soon picked him up again. He took to carrying him around on his hip, much as his brother had done on the night that they had arrived at Bag End, and, while he was only a light burden, it was nonetheless awkward and most inconvenient. Gone was the cheerful, excitable child of the day before, who had somehow managed to give the impression of chattering even without saying a word, and Bilbo began to sorely miss him, even with his rather troublesome ways and unconscionably sticky fingers.

“Don’t you think you might like to go back to bed?” he asked Kili for the dozenth time. “You seem very tired and out of sorts.”

But Kili only clung to him even more closely, resting his head on Bilbo’s shoulder, and Bilbo didn’t have the heart to press him.

Thankfully, it was not long after this that there came a knock at the door. Bilbo made to go towards it, but, to his surprise, Kili suddenly began to squirm in his arms, pointing at the ground. Bilbo frowned in surprise and put him down, and Kili immediately scuttled off to hide behind the large armchair.

“I’m sure it is no-one to be afraid of,” Bilbo said.

But Kili stayed where he was, and there came another knock at the door. Bilbo, rather too relieved to have escaped from Kili’s clutches to argue with him further, hurried to open it.

“Good morning!” cried the hobbit who stood on the other side—one of them, for there were two. “Lily tells me you have adopted some dwarves?”

Bilbo stood and gaped at the speaker. It was Rose Boffin, a sister of Lily’s, and beside her stood Lily herself, looking rather stern. Rose, though, looked cheerful (as was her wont), and came in without being asked.

Dwarves, Lily? I said, for I could not countenance that you would do such a thing. Why, where would you even get them from? But she insists that it is true, and what’s more, that you are not very good at looking after them, which is no surprise, you not having any children of your own and so on. But I am surprised, for I never took you to be the adopting type. Confirmed bachelor, Lily, I said, why would he want to go about adopting anyone, let alone dwarves, and not even a wife to his name? Not meaning any offence, of course, for I’m sure if you wanted a wife, you could have one. But I do think that small children do better with a woman in the house, don’t you?”

She smiled at him, and Bilbo, rather flummoxed and not sure that he had followed all of her speech, nodded hesitantly.

“Well, I have not adopted anyone,” he said.

“Oh!” said Rose. “Well, that is exactly what I said. Adopted, Bilbo Baggins? I said. Why, Lily, I do not believe such a thing. But there are no dwarves, then? Lily swore to me there were.”

“There are,” Lily said, rather sharply.

“Well—well, yes, there are,” Bilbo said. “Yes, there are two dwarves. But I—”

“Goodness!” Rose said. “I never would have guessed it! Bilbo Baggins, adopting two dwarves. I must make their acquaintance—I am sure they will want to play with my own—they are bound to find someone close to their age, you know, I have so many—but how old are they and what are their names? And are they girl-dwarves or boy-dwarves?”

“Er—” Bilbo started, but Rose had already bustled past him towards the living room, clearly on the lookout for dwarves. Lily brushed past in her wake.

“I’ve come to see if they’re better,” she said, and then, glancing back with a gimlet eye, “I’ve brought my sister with me.”

Bilbo stared after them for a moment, dumbfounded.

“So I see,” he muttered. And then, suddenly struck with the memory of Kili racing to hide behind the armchair, he sprang after his new set of uninvited guests.

He found them in the living room, Rose looking around with a disappointed air.

“I suppose they’re still in bed, then, are they?” she said. “Are they still ill?”

Bilbo opened his mouth and then closed it again, considering whether he might lie to Rose and thus prevent any difficulties between her and Kili. But then, he needed Lily to examine both dwarves so that he could assure himself they were indeed better, and if he sent her off to the bedrooms she would discover immediately that only one dwarf was there. What to do, then?

At that moment, though, the problem was taken out of his hands, for Rose squeaked and put a hand to her mouth, and then pointed at the armchair.

“Was that—what was that?” she asked. “I saw something!”

“Ah,” Bilbo said. “Well, you see—well, they are rather shy, you see.”

He went to the armchair and crouched down, peering behind it, only to see Kili staring back at him, huddled in the shadows.

“Hello, my boy,” he said. “There is no reason to be scared, you know. It is only a pair of hobbits—kind hobbits, very nice ones, I assure you.”

“Is he behind there?” Rose asked, coming a little closer with a look of great curiosity on her face.

“Oh, if you wouldn’t mind standing a little further away?” Bilbo said. “Only he is very shy, as I have said, and rather frightened of strangers.”

“Oh yes,” Rose said, stepping back. “My Marigold was quite the same, when she was a little one. And now she never leaves off chattering! I have no idea where she gets it from.”

Lily snorted indelicately, and Bilbo decided to ignore them both.

“You need to come out so Lily can examine you,” he said. “She needs to be able to tell me if you’re well. If you are, and if your brother is, you will be able to see each other properly again. But if she can’t examine you, she won’t be able to tell me. So you must come out, do you see?”

Kili hunched his shoulders, looking anxious and miserable. He made no move to come out, and Bilbo considered whether to bring out the cake. But no—he would try something else, first.

“I will keep hold of you,” he said. “I will keep you in my arms and not let you go. And I’ll look after you—I promise. And then if you both are well, your brother will be able to look after you again. So will you come?”

He waited. Behind the armchair, Kili shifted slightly towards him, then back, twisted his hands together in front of him. Bilbo held out his arms, and Kili, after another moment’s hesitation, he suddenly darted forward, climbing up Bilbo until he was pressed to his side, clutching at his shoulder. Bilbo quickly put his arms around him, managed to stand up with only one or two false starts, and then jostled them both around until Kili’s weight was in some semblance of a comfortable position.

“Here he is,” he said to his visitors.

Rose looked absolutely delighted. “Well, I never,” she said. “So small! I thought dwarves were meant to be rather tall, Bilbo, isn’t that so? But I suppose he is very young, then. And my, look at those ears! Lily, did you ever see such ears?”

“The ears aren’t much use to me,” Lily said. “It’s the face I want to see. Look at me, young master dwarf.”

Kili had buried his face in Bilbo’s shoulder, and all that was visible of him beyond his hair was one of the aforementioned ears—which were, indeed, surprisingly large. At Lily’s request, he only pressed his face even harder into Bilbo’s shoulder and trembled a little.

“Oh, now,” Bilbo said soothingly, stroking his back. “Oh, now, master dwarf. You have already seen Lily, don’t you remember? You met her two days ago. And Rose is very nice, very kind—you certainly have nothing to fear from her.”

Rose’s expression became suddenly sympathetic. “Oh, very shy indeed,” she said, with a smile. “Well, if you don’t want to see me, master dwarf, then I shall remove myself. All the way back to the door,” she said, stepping backwards as she spoke. “Now I am far away,” she called. “And you are very well protected by Mr Bilbo—even if I wanted to, I would never dare to do anything while he was with you.”

Bilbo nodded his thanks, and patted Kili on the back. “Lily can’t examine you if she can’t see your face,” he said. “Come, now. Show yourself for a minute or two.”

Kili’s fingers tightened on Bilbo’s waistcoat, until he held two fistfuls of cloth. Then he lifted his head and turned it towards Lily.

“Good,” Lily said. She peered into his face, then turned her ear towards his mouth. “Take some deep breaths, child,” she said.

Kili did as he was told, and Lily nodded, then pressed her palm to his back.

“Again,” she said.

Kili breathed deeply, and after a moment or two, Lily stepped back, looking rather surprised.

“Well, it seems you are better,” she said. “And you are walking around, are you? You look pale, are you feeling sick?”

“He slept poorly last night,” Bilbo said. “But yesterday he was quite cheerful and lively, if a little quick to tire.”

“A fast recovery indeed,” Lily said. “Perhaps it is normal with dwarves. Very good.” She gave Kili a stern nod. “This business of not speaking is foolish, master dwarf. I will pound you some herbs to put in your tea for the next little while, to make sure you stay well.” She turned to Bilbo. “I presume I may use your kitchen?”

“Indeed,” Bilbo said, gesturing. “And then the older one is through that door there. He is better too, I think.”

Lily made her exit, and Kili quickly buried his face in Bilbo’s shoulder again. A moment later, though, he peeked out at Rose.

“Hello, young master dwarf,” Rose said with a warm smile. “My name is Rose. I am Lily’s sister, you know—though we are not much alike, I must say. I was very curious to meet you—I have never met a dwarf before.”

Kili peered at her out of one eye, the other still hidden.

“You’re very quiet,” Rose said. “Are all dwarves as quiet as you?”

“Oh—he doesn’t talk,” Bilbo said. “Not to mention, he is rather shy of strangers—today especially, I think. He had a rather unpleasant nightmare last night and he has been very out of sorts all morning.” He gestured for Rose to sit down, and he sat himself, rearranging Kili into his lap.

“Oh, poor little lamb,” Rose said. “My Freddy used to have terrible nightmares, you know. Used to wake the whole house with his screaming.”

“Oh, dear,” Bilbo said vaguely, but then it occurred to him that here was just what he needed: a person with a great deal of experience with children, who could help him to understand all the many things his guests did that made no sense at all. Why, Rose had—well, in truth, he was not at all sure how many children Rose had, but she always seemed to be surrounded by a flock of them, and that must mean something. “Are they always so clingy?” he asked.

“I beg your pardon?” Rose asked, and Bilbo realised the question had sounded rather abrupt.

“Ah, well, K—” he started, and then paused, feeling an odd sort of desire to protect the dwarves’ secrets. “This one,” he said, indicating Kili with his chin, “was quite bright and cheerful and—rather a handful yesterday, running around all over the place. But today he has wanted to do nothing but be picked up and held, all day. It is quite awkward, I don’t mind telling you.”

“Oh, yes,” Rose said. “But you said he had a nightmare? Well, he is tired and probably still rather frightened, and so of course he wants to be comforted.”

“Well, yes, of course,” Bilbo said. “But I have told him and told him to go back to bed, if he’s so tired, and he will not go.”

Rose burst out laughing at that, and Bilbo frowned at her, feeling a little put out.

“I don’t see what’s so very funny,” he said.

“Oh, my dear Bilbo,” Rose said. “Yes, I see you have never tried to put a child to bed before. They can be as tired as the day is long, but they will not go without a fight, oh dear me, no. Oh dear, no, you must teach him that he must go when he is told.”

Bilbo considered this, remembering how desperately miserable Kili had looked when he had left him alone that morning. He rather thought his heart might not be up to teaching this particular lesson. “I think he gets very lonely when he is left on his own in bed,” he said. “He is used to spending all his time with his brother, you know, but since they have both been ill, they have been separated.”

“Poor creatures,” Rose said. “Hm. But does he not have something he can hold on to when he is on his own? A toy of some kind?”

“I don’t think so,” Bilbo said. “He had nothing when he came here—neither of them had anything other than the clothes they were standing up in. And of course I have no toys—why would I?”

“No toys at all?” Rose asked, looking almost scandalised. “Why, Bilbo, you cannot think to be adopting two children with no toys in the house? Certainly they do not need very many, but oh, what a dull life for them. You should certainly have thought about that before you decided to take them in!”

Bilbo opened his mouth to point out that, if he had run around collecting toys before taking the two dwarves in, they would most certainly have frozen to death, but Rose was in full flow.

“Well!” she said. “I will find you something. Certainly something to hold and hug for your little one here, and something for the older one, too—what did you say their names were?”

“Er—” said Bilbo, having completely forgotten the names that Fili had told him a few days before. But Rose did not wait for an answer, and so Bilbo was spared having to give one.

“Is this one even weaned?” she asked. “I suppose he must be, if he has already been with you for days, and if his mother—but now, what happened to their parents, anyway? Did you know them?”

Bilbo rather expected not to have to answer that question, either, and found himself floundering a little when Rose suddenly stopped talking and stared at him expectantly.

“Oh,” he said, after a silence that was just a little too long. “Oh—no, well—no, I just found them. Found them outside, you see, in the snow. No, I have not adopted them, certainly not.”

Rose looked surprised by this. “But then—what about their parents?” she asked.

“Well, they are dead, by all accounts,” Bilbo said. “At least, so the older one told me. And the dwarves seem to have been wandering in the wilderness for some time, for they are both quite undernourished and—odd. Although perhaps all dwarves are odd.”

“That does seem rather likely,” Rose said. But then she frowned slightly. “Is he unwell?” she asked.

“Who?” Bilbo asked, and then became aware that she was looking at Kili. And that Kili had suddenly curled up in a ball and was shaking, his arms wrapped around himself as if he was freezing cold.

“Master dwarf?” Bilbo asked, turning him and tilting him a little to try and see his face. “What’s the matter?”

The little dwarf looked up at him, and his face was a picture of shock and terrified disbelief. Bilbo frowned down at him, unable to understand what had happened. “Master dwarf?” he said, holding him a little tighter. “Are you ill?”

Kili swallowed, tears beginning to brighten his eyes. “Is my mama dead?” he whispered.

And that was when Bilbo understood his mistake. But too late—ah, too late—for the little dwarf did not wait for an answer, but only wrenched himself suddenly from Bilbo’s grasp, falling to the floor with a painful-sounding thud. He was on his feet in an instant—far faster than Bilbo could react—and racing out of the room, stumbling a little, but still nimble enough that by the time Bilbo was standing, he was already gone.

“Oh dear,” Bilbo muttered, and started after him, waving a hand at Rose, who had begun to rise to her feet.

It did not take long to find him. He was, of course, in his brother’s room, gesticulating wildly, eyes wide and tears now rolling down his cheeks. Fili was sitting on the bed, and just as Bilbo arrived, his expression shifted from one of confusion and worry to a sort of guilty shock. He shook his head sharply, just once, and then glanced at Bilbo and at Lily, and made a series of quick gestures with his hands. Kili blinked at him, face still set with fear, and replied with a number of signs of his own, much broader and clumsier even than usual.

Fili shook his head again, with another hunted glance at Bilbo, then signed something else, and Kili suddenly sat down with a bump, as if his legs had simply stopped holding him up. He swallowed hard and then started to cry quietly, drawing his knees up in front of him.

“Oh, poor love,” Rose said behind Bilbo’s shoulder. “Didn’t he know about his mother?”

Fili looked up at Lily. “You said I’m better,” he said. “Can I go and sit with him?”

Lily nodded, and even she looked affected by the little dwarf’s obvious misery. “Both of you are well,” she said. “And I think it would be good for him.”

Fili nodded and slid off the bed and across the floor in an instant, taking his brother by the shoulders.

“We’ll be all right, though,” he murmured. “I’ll look after you.”

Kili clutched at his brother, a sudden, desperate gesture, and Fili took him by the face and pressed their foreheads together, Kili’s hands rising to wrap around his wrists. They sat like that a moment, both with their eyes closed, and Bilbo felt rather like he was intruding on something that ought to have been private. And then Fili took his brother in his arms and held him tight, and Kili clung to him and wept into his shoulder.

“Well,” Rose murmured behind him. “Yes, I do see why he might have been lonely without his brother. I do see. And I think—Lily, I think perhaps we should go home. These two seem a little overtired for visitors, don’t you agree?”

“Quite,” Lily said. “They need to sleep. Plenty of rest and plenty of food. They’re nothing but skin and bones, and that’s not right, not on a hobbit and not on a dwarf, either, if I’m not much mistaken.” She nodded at the two dwarves sitting on the floor and leaning heavily on each other. “Sleep, and food. Food, and sleep. See that you do!”

“He won’t sleep,” Bilbo said, feeling quite anxious. “I have been trying to persuade him all morning.”

But Fili looked up at that, and then down at his brother. He chewed his lip, and then affected a yawn.

“Brother,” he murmured. “I need to sleep. Will you come with me? I don’t want to be on my own.”

Kili stirred in his arms, and then looked up at him. He looked thoroughly exhausted, now, and seemed perhaps to barely understand the question. But when Fili nodded his head towards the bed and let go of his brother long enough to make a quick gesture with one hand, Kili blinked, turning to look at the bed himself, then nodded. And when Fili got to his feet, he brought Kili up with him, and somehow managed to shuffle them both onto the bed without further ado.

“Do you think he will—” Bilbo started, but the words died in his throat, for before the question had been asked, the answer had made itself known. Kili squirmed a little in his brother’s arms, turned and pressed himself closer into his embrace, and then was asleep, like the blowing out of a candle.

“Well, I’ll be,” Bilbo murmured. It seemed suddenly to him that all that long morning, Kili had been seeking something from him that he had not quite been capable of giving, and now, at last, he had found it.

“Come then, sister,” Rose said, and she and Lily slipped out of the room. Bilbo went out with them, and thanked them both, and felt a great deal less annoyed to have had visitors than he had when they arrived. And when they had gone, he went and fetched the blankets from the little dwarf’s bed, and went back to the room where they both now lay on top of the covers.

“Here,” he murmured, spreading the blankets over the two dwarves. The little one was fast asleep now, breathing deeply, but the elder still had his eyes open, though his eyelids looked heavy. “You sleep, too, master dwarf,” he said. “You were awake as much of the night as he was, I have no doubt.”

“I’m looking after him,” Fili said, slurring his words a little.

“You are, and doing a very splendid job of it,” Bilbo said. “But, now, I am your host, and so I am looking after you. You are looking after your brother, and I am looking after you. So it’s safe for you to sleep, do you see?”

Fili considered this for a long moment, blinking slowly. Then he nodded.

“Yes,” he said, eyes already slipping closed. “I see.”

Bilbo waited until his breath evened out, then stepped back from the bed and slipped away. In the doorway, he paused, looking back at the bed and the bundle of dwarves, barely to be distinguished from one another.

Some time later, as he was washing his hands in the basin, he recalled that sight to himself, and when he looked up and caught his face in the mirror, he found he was wearing a small smile -- a rather fond-looking smile, or so it seemed to him. He stared at himself, wondering, for he could think of no reason for him to be making such an expression. Dwarves, after all, were turning out to be quite troublesome creatures. Quite troublesome, indeed.

Bilbo shook his head at himself in the mirror, and went about his day.

Chapter Text

The dwarves slept through lunch, and Bilbo had a quiet time of it—and very grateful he was for that, too. He worried a little about their missing meals, but concluded that sleep was more important than food just this once, and set something aside for them. When tea-time came around, though, he began to think that he should wake them—after all, missing one meal was one thing, but missing two was really something that ought to be avoided.

In the event, though, there was no need for him to trouble himself: when he turned to go and wake the dwarves, he found them standing in the doorway, watching him.

“Oh,” Bilbo said, mildly startled. “Hello, there. You’re up.”

Kili smiled at him—still more subdued than the day before, but looking much more cheerful than he had that morning. He had a blanket wrapped around him, and beside him stood his brother, with one arm across his shoulders. Fili, meanwhile, had no smile on his face, and was watching Bilbo carefully.

“Can we have something to eat?” he asked. “My brother’s hungry.”

“Well, of course,” Bilbo said. “You must both be famished, after so long without food. I’ve saved some lunch for you, and when you’ve finished that, we can all have tea together.”

He collected the fish and potatoes he had stowed away earlier and laid the table for three—for he though he might have a little late lunch as well, as a preparation for tea. Fili and Kili sat down side by side, and though at first there was a small gap between them as they positioned themselves in front of the plates Bilbo had set down, a moment later the gap had vanished, and they were leaning against each other. This caused some minor problems with eating, and there was a little elbowing, but they seemed to find an arrangement that suited them soon enough, and both set to with gusto. By the time Bilbo had eaten half of his food, both dwarves had cleaned their plates, and Kili was eyeing the pantry door with a hungry expression. Fili, meanwhile, was just watching Bilbo.

“Still hungry?” Bilbo asked. “I’m afraid there’s no more lunch, but it does seem to be tea time.” He smiled at Fili, and then, when that produced no results, at Kili. “Do you know, I think that cake might go stale if we don’t finish it off today.”

Kili sat up straight at that, his attention snapping to Bilbo. Then he turned to his brother and made a series of quick gestures. Fili frowned at him and shook his head, and Kili bit his lip and subsided into his seat.

“What did he ask?” Bilbo said. “I’m sure it can’t have been anything bad.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Fili said. “Thank you for the food. We don’t need any more.”

“But of course you do!” Bilbo said. “That was only lunch, which you missed. If you don’t have any more, then you’ll miss tea, and that will never do. I think the two of you have missed far too many meals already. And I certainly cannot eat all the cake by myself.”

Fili shifted in his seat, looking oddly anxious. He seemed to be avoiding looking at his brother, who was now staring at him silently. Bilbo did not understand why he was refusing tea, but he thought he did understand why he might not want to look at Kili, for it seemed to him that anyone who took in that pleading expression would be forced to concede, however stubborn he might believe himself to be. And perhaps—well, perhaps Bilbo could take advantage of that to overcome the dwarf’s strange and foolish determination not to eat properly.

“Your brother looks hungry, still,” Bilbo said. Fili frowned and glanced at Kili, and, as Bilbo had predicted, that was his undoing. He met Kili’s eyes, which somehow managed to convey the great tragedy of a lack of cake without a word being spoken, and then swallowed and sighed.

“All right,” he muttered, and then, turning to Bilbo. “All right. Yes, if you don’t mind—if he’s allowed.”

“Allowed?” Bilbo said, jumping to his feet. “I insist! And there’s plenty of cake for you, too, master dwarf.”

“No, I—” Fili started, but then Bilbo produced the cake, and he grew quiet, looking at it with almost the same expression as his brother. Bilbo smothered a chuckle and set the plate down on the table.

“It needs to be finished today,” he said. “I hope you will both help me.”

And he cut two large pieces of cake and put one in front of each dwarf. Kili pounced on his immediately, making a terrible mess as usual—but he seemed so transported with joy that Bilbo could not quite bring himself to mind. Fili resisted the temptation for less than half a minute before putting a crumb of cake in his mouth. Once the first cracks formed, though, the dam was not long in bursting, and by the time Kili had finished devouring his piece, Fili was taking huge bites and making tiny sounds of appreciation that Bilbo rather thought he was not aware of making.

“Hm,” Bilbo said, eating his own cake in the manner of a civilised person in an attempt to be an example (not that it seemed to be helping very much). “It seems you are both still hungry after all.”

Kili finished his cake and beamed at Bilbo, then pointed at the remainder and raised his eyebrows in a question.

“If you share it with your brother,” Bilbo said.

Kili nodded enthusiastically, and Bilbo cut the rest of the cake in half and put half of it on Kili’s plate. Kili immediately—and rather clumsily—tore his half in two and held one piece out to Fili.

“Oh, that’s not—” Bilbo said, for he had meant for the half that was still left to go to Fili. But Fili had already accepted the cake from his brother, and Kili had proceeded to stuff the other part in his mouth, which had an impressive capacity for such a small dwarf. Bilbo considered, and decided that perhaps it was better to leave well enough alone.

And he took the last piece of cake for himself.

When they had finished eating, Bilbo opened his mouth to tell his dwarven guests to wash their hands—both of them were surely sticky, although only Kili appeared to have managed to smear cake and jam across his wrists and part of his face as well. But the words never left his mouth, for Kili made a few quick gestures to Fili and raised his eyebrows, and Fili turned to speak before Bilbo had the chance.

“Can we get down?” he asked.

“Of course,” Bilbo said. “But you should wash—”

But again, the words died in his throat, for no sooner had he been given permission than Kili jumped down from his chair, and then climbed nimbly up onto Bilbo’s lap, beamed at him, and knocked his forehead gently against Bilbo’s. Bilbo was still trying to understand the meaning of the gesture when a guttural word, sharp with anger, rang out across the table. Kili started and turned, still standing on Bilbo’s knee, and Bilbo peered around him and saw that Fili’s face was tight with anger. Fili said something else, still in that strange, harsh dwarven tongue, and Kili hurried to get down off Bilbo’s knee and onto the floor, where he stood pale and miserable-looking, shoulders hunched.

“What on earth is the matter?” Bilbo asked. This had the effect of turning Fili’s attention towards him, and he scowled at him, eyes snapping, for all the world like no time had passed since he had first arrived at Bag End, furious and mistrustful.

“Well, I have done something to upset you,” Bilbo said, starting to feel rather irritated. “But there’s no need to take it out on your brother. Look, you’ve made him cry.”

And it was true: Kili was crying, just a little, a few tears slipping down his cheeks.

Fili scowl darkened, but when he turned to look at his brother, his features relaxed, and in a moment he had slipped from anger to worry and guilt. He got down from his chair and stood in front of Kili, mouth twisted. Bilbo waited, wondering if he ought to step in. But in the end, there was no need: Fili spoke no more angry words, but instead seemed to shake himself, and gave his brother a quick, tight hug, whispering something in his ear before pulling back and pressing their foreheads together. Bilbo recognised—rather belatedly—that some version of this gesture, which he had seen several times now from the dwarves, was what Kili had done to him when he had climbed up onto his lap. He wondered if it was that which had caused Fili’s anger. But how could he know? His guests were quite mysterious, and who knew what the true meaning of the gesture was.

Kili sniffed and wiped his nose on his hand. “’Msorry,” he whispered.

“Sh,” Fili murmured, glancing quickly at Bilbo—who managed to restrain himself from rolling his eyes. Then Fili took his brother by the shoulders and stared at him with an anxious expression. “Don’t cry,” he said.

Kili responded to this by wiping his nose again—and Bilbo was not entirely sure whether the hand was a better option than the sleeve, though he supposed it was easier to wash, at least—and making a clear effort to stop crying. He didn’t look any less miserable, though, and Fili bit his lip, fingers tightening on Kili’s shoulders. And then he let go of him abruptly, and, just as abruptly, attacked him.

Bilbo was on his feet in a moment, but a moment was all it took to realise that what he was witnessing was not any kind of violent reprisal at all. For Kili made an aborted shriek and then dissolved onto the floor in a fit of giggles so vigorous that it left him breathless, while Fili, following him down, wormed his fingers into the armpits that Kili tried feebly to defend. Kili squirmed and laughed and seemed almost to be more affected by the knowledge that Fili was trying to tickle him than by the tickling itself, and Fili laughed, too, transformed suddenly from the wary, sullen child that Bilbo knew. He seemed quite delighted with his ability to overcome his brother, and he straddled Kili’s chest and went to work with gusto. At last, though, Kili managed to wriggle his way free, and leapt to his feet, still laughing wildly. A moment later, he was gone, racing out into the living room at a speed that had Bilbo rather worried for his china ornaments. No sooner had he gone than Fili was on his feet and tearing after him, laughing too, though more quietly than his brother.

“Wash your hands!” Bilbo called after them, to no avail at all. Then he sighed, looking around the crumb-strewn kitchen, the silence rather sudden and strange after the racket of the dwarves’ game. Somewhere deeper in the hobbit hole, there was a squeal that told him that Fili had caught up with his brother.

“I hope they don’t break anything,” Bilbo muttered to himself, and set about cleaning up.

****

By the time Bilbo had finished setting the kitchen to rights, the shrieks and laughter from elsewhere in the hobbit hole had subsided and there was blessed silence. At least, Bilbo considered it to be blessed for a little while. Then he began to worry: what might the dwarves be doing, to be so quiet? Sitting down and reading, perhaps? But he considered the little he knew about them—about Kili in particular—and found it hard to reconcile this with quiet, calm activity. Yet quiet it was, and before very long Bilbo found himself becoming quite concerned. He made his way to the living room, and found Fili standing in the middle of the floor, one hand over his eyes, muttering under his breath.

“Master dwarf,” Bilbo said, his heart sinking at the absence of Kili. “What are you doing? Where is your brother?”

Fili spread the fingers of his hand and peered out at Bilbo from between them. “I don’t know,” he said.

Bilbo’s heart sank further, and lurched a little into the bargain. “What do you mean?” he asked. “You’ve lost him? We must go and look for him!”

Fili gave him a perplexed sort of frown. “I’ve got to count first,” he said. “Otherwise it’s not fair.”

Bilbo stared at him for a moment before he suddenly understood. “Oh,” he said. “You’re—are you playing a game?”

“I’ve lost count,” Fili said. “I’ll have to start again. Don’t cheat and look for him before I’ve finished, Mr Bilbo, it’s not fair.”

“Ah—no, of course not,” Bilbo said. Fili nodded and closed his eyes again, and Bilbo sat down in his armchair and sighed. It was such a long time since he’d had anything to do with children—he’d entirely forgotten this hiding game existed, although now he recalled that he’d played something that seemed very similar as a child himself. Still, at least the dwarves were managing to entertain themselves in a way that didn’t appear to involve breaking anything or being very noisy.

Unfortunately, not long afterwards he had to retract the latter part of his statement, for, Fili having disappeared into the hall to look for Kili, Bilbo was alerted to the fact that he’d found him by an piercing screech followed by a series of high-pitched giggles. He gritted his teeth a little, and managed to smile when Kili came tearing into the room.

“You seem to be having fun,” he said.

Kili nodded, beaming, and then took up position in the middle of the floor and closed his eyes, plastering both hands over his face. He stood in silence for a short while, then pulled his hands away from his face and frowned anxiously.

“Something the matter?” Bilbo asked.

Kili gave him a mournful look, then put a hand over his mouth. He pointed to himself, then held up one finger, then two, then three, and shook his head. Bilbo pondered this for a moment or two.

“You don’t know how to count?” he asked.

Kili shook his head quickly, then put his hand over his mouth again.

“You—you—oh, you want to count out loud?” Bilbo asked. “Are you—perhaps you can’t count very well unless you’re counting out loud?”

Kili nodded frantically at this, and Bilbo felt rather pleased with himself for deciphering it. “Well, count out loud, then,” he said. “I certainly don’t mind.”

Kili stared at him, eyes round. Bilbo sighed.

“It can hardly do any harm to count in front of me,” he said. “I already know how to count, so it’s not like you’ll be giving away any secrets.”

It took a moment, but apparently Kili was swayed by this argument, because he closed his eyes and put his hands over them, then started counting.

“One, two, three,” he said, mostly in a whisper, and Bilbo shook his head and went back to his book. But when Kili came to say twelve, he stuttered.

“T—” he said. “T— Eleven, t—” He paused, frowning behind his hand.

“Twelve,” Bilbo supplied.

“Twelve,” Kili said. “Twelve, twelve—thr— threlve?”

“Thirteen,” Bilbo said. “Do you know any numbers after ten?”

Kili peeked at him from behind his fingers. “Yes, I know them,” he said. “I know them to a million.”

Bilbo couldn’t quite smother his smile. “Do you, indeed?” he asked. “What comes next, then?”

“Threeteen... fourteen,” Kili said. “Fiveteen.”

“Fifteen,” Bilbo put in.

“F— Fifteen,” Kili said. “Sixteen seventeen eighteen twenty.” He grinned at Bilbo. “We’ve got to go and find him now.”

“We?” Bilbo said. “It’s your game. You’re the one who should find him.”

In response to this, Kili trotted up to him and grabbed his hand. “It’s dark,” he said, glancing at the doorway into the back hall. “I don’t want to go on my own.”

Bilbo raised his eyebrows. “You didn’t seem to mind it being dark when you were hiding in there a few minutes ago,” he said.

Kili’s face suddenly crumpled into a tragic expression. “Please, Mr Bilbo?” he whispered. “Please, I don’t want to go on my own.”

Well, Bilbo felt rather suspicious that Kili was not scared of the dark at all, but only wanted him to come for some strange dwarvish reason of his own. But he remembered how terrified the child had been just that morning, and he found it hard to deny him now, even if he was just playing the fool. He resisted the dwarf’s mournful expression for only a few seconds before giving in with a sigh and setting his book aside.

“Come along, then,” he said, privately hoping they would find Fili very quickly indeed.

Unfortunately, it seemed that Kili was not very adept at sniffing out hiding spaces. He peered into each room, towing Bilbo by the hand behind him, but even though he looked in places were no-one could possibly be hiding, like under the covers on the bed, he didn’t seem to think of much more obvious places like under the bed itself. After looking in two rooms, he started to pout.

“It’s too hard,” he whispered, apparently having decided that if he didn’t talk very loudly to Bilbo it didn’t really count as talking. “I can’t find him.”

“Well, you haven’t really looked very hard, have you?” Bilbo asked.

“Yes, I have!” Kili whispered. “I’ve looked everywhere.”

At that moment, Bilbo happened to glance into the dwarves’ bedroom, where Kili had just finished looking, and saw a small, dwarvish hand very deliberately appear from underneath the bed. He suppressed a smile.

“Why don’t you try looking again?” he said. “Maybe there’s something you missed.”

Kili didn’t look very satisfied with this solution, but he sighed heavily and went back into the bedroom, dragging Bilbo along by the hand. A moment later, though, he gave a cry of joy, and let go of Bilbo’s hand in favour of pouncing on Fili’s.

“I’ve found you!” he shouted. “You’re under the bed! I’ve found you!”

He pulled hard, and Fili came slithering out, laughing.

“Your turn to hide,” he said.

At that moment, there was a knock on the front door. Bilbo looked around, and when he looked back, he found that both dwarves had disappeared, and the room had fallen abruptly silent. Sighing, he got down on his knees and peered under the bed. Two pairs of eyes peered back at him.

“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he said. “You are quite safe here in the Shire.”

Neither dwarf made any move towards him, and Bilbo sighed again. “Well, stay there, if you must,” he said. “I will go and see who it is.”

He made his way to the door, and when he opened it, he found Rose standing on the other side.

“Oh, hello,” Bilbo said, and Rose smiled at him and came in without being asked.

“Good afternoon,” she said. “I was just tidying up a little around my hobbit hole and do you know, I found quite the little treasure trove of toys? Tucked in a cupboard they were, and I had quite forgotten about them, but there, I knew we used to have more things. I do think one of the children might have hidden them there and forgotten all about it, like a game, you see? They do invent some odd games sometimes. Now, where are your little dwarves?”

“Ah,” Bilbo said, peering out of the door to make sure Lily hadn’t come too—outside, the snow was starting to melt, and the world looked rather dreary—then turning to face his guest. “Well—they’re playing a game. A hiding game.”

“Are they, indeed?” Rose said. “They’re feeling better, then?”

“Oh yes, for the most part,” Bilbo said. “I’ll go and call them out.” For he felt it would be very rude to take the toys from Rose without the dwarves even making an appearance. “Please, do sit down.”

Once he was assured that Rose was comfortable, he made his way back to the bedroom, and knelt down to peer under the bed.

“Now, then,” he said. “It is only Rose, who you have already met. She is very kind, as you know, and what’s more, she has brought you presents.”

Kili blinked at the word presents, then tried to slide out from under the bed. Fili, though, caught him by the wrist and held him, staring at Bilbo.

“We don’t need any presents,” he said.

“I suppose need isn’t quite the word,” Bilbo said. “But you might rather like them. And even if you do not, you must come and accept them and thank her for them. I insist.”

Fili chewed his lip, but a moment later he starting crawling out from under the bed. Kili slipped out much more nimbly, and then the two of them stood up, looking rather dusty.

“She’s in the living room,” said Bilbo, and led the way.

When they arrived in the living room, Rose smiled and rose to her feet.

“Good afternoon, my dears,” she said. “You look as if you have been playing under someone’s bed. Do you know, Bilbo, it is an excellent form of cleaning, to allow children to play under your bed? They do soak up the dust. Now, then, I have brought some things for you.”

And she reached into the basket at her side and pulled out a lumpy, threadbare-looking rag doll. The creature had woollen hair and black eyes, and was wearing a dress that had perhaps once been white. It was clear enough that it had been much beloved of someone.

“This is for you, my dear,” Rose said, holding the doll out to Kili.

Kili was half hidden behind his brother, peering out shyly. But when Rose held out the doll, his eyes fixed on it and grew wide. He took a step forward, only to halt when Fili reached out and took the doll.

“Thank you,” Fili said.

Rose looked a little surprised. “Well, you are welcome,” she said. “But I didn’t mean it for you. It is for your brother, you know—though if you want one of your own, well, I can certainly find you one. But that one is meant for your brother—I thought he would like something to hold onto.”

Fili nodded, holding the doll rather gingerly in his hand. “I’ll give it to him,” he said. “He doesn’t like strangers.”

Bilbo felt rather embarrassed at Fili’s rudeness, but since Kili was indeed still hiding behind his brother, he supposed it might be true that he was still frightened of Rose. The little dwarf was now trying to peer around Fili’s arm at the doll, but Fili moved so that he could not see—perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not—and then tucked the doll away under his arm.

“Hm,” Rose said, sounding put out. “Well.” She glanced at Bilbo and raised her eyebrows, and Bilbo felt himself blushing. It occurred to him that, as the closest thing the children had to a guardian, it was his responsibility to tell Fili off for behaving in such a way towards a guest—for Rose herself was, naturally, far too well-brought-up to scold someone else’s child in front of them (though no doubt she would not have hesitated to do so had Bilbo not been there).

“Now, then, master dwarf,” he said. “Rose has been very kind in giving your brother a present. The least you can do is let him have it.”

Fili turned to stare at him, and there was something careful and assessing about his gaze that made Bilbo feel rather uncomfortable. Then, abruptly, he took the doll out from under his arm and turned towards Kili. He held the doll out, and Kili’s face lit up. But Fili spoke a few words in that dwarvish language, and Kili’s expression immediately dimmed. He took the doll, hugged it to his chest, and then turned and nodded vigorously at Rose, bobbing an odd little bow.

Rose laughed. “Well, you are very welcome,” she said. “Now, the rest of these are for both of you.”

She opened her basket, and revealed a motley collection of toys, mostly little wooden carved things: a little cart, two ponies, a cow with a broken leg and an oliphaunt. There were also a collection of counters that looked like they belonged to a game of some sort and a round wooden ball, about the size of a child’s fist. At the sight of them, Kili’s eyes grew wide again, but Fili just looked worried, and took hold of his brother’s elbow.

“Thank you,” he said stiffly to Rose. “Thank you very much.”

Kili nodded again, pointing at himself, and Bilbo smiled.

“He says thank you, too,” he said.

“Does he, indeed?” Rose said, smiling at Kili herself. “Well, you are very welcome, my dear. And now, I’m sure I would very much like to stay to tea, Bilbo, and thank you for the invitation, but I must be getting on. I am so very busy, you know. But I will come back tomorrow and see how your little dwarves are getting on. I do think you might need a woman to help you with this, you know—I am still very surprised that you have adopted them! But I do see why, I do, indeed, for they are quite precious, if a little ill-mannered. Goodbye, then, both.”

And she smiled again at the two dwarves, and made her farewell to Bilbo, who saw her to the door.

“Thank you so much for the toys,” he said. “I am sorry that the dwarves are a little odd.”

“Oh! Well,” Rose said, “as to that, they are dwarves, after all, and who knows what kind of dreadful upbringing they have had? And of course I don’t expect you to know how to raise children, Bilbo, my dear—oh dear, it is lucky that I found out about them when I did, or who knows what could have happened? But, now, the little one seems much happier now he has his brother with him, although this business of not speaking is most inconvenient. But the elder—why, I do think he is very frightened.”

“Frightened?” Bilbo asked. “Frightened of what?”

“Perhaps the same thing the little one is frightened of,” Rose said. “I do not know, of course, for I know nothing at all about them. But it is sad to see two children so frightened.”

“Well, I thought him rather rude than frightened,” Bilbo said.

“Ah, well,” Rose said, “there is no reason he cannot be both at once.”

And Bilbo had no answer to that, so he said goodbye and closed the door. When he returned to the living room, it was to see that the dwarves had put all of their new toys in a neat pile, and Fili now stood in front of his brother with one hand outstretched. Kili had his arms wrapped tightly about his doll, and he had an expression on his face that made Bilbo’s heart ache in his chest. But before Bilbo could ask what on earth was the matter, Kili sniffed hard, loosened his arms, and allowed Fili to take the doll from him. A tear rolled down his cheek, and he rubbed viciously at his eyes. Fili shook his head and laid the doll carefully on the pile, then put an arm around Kili and hugged him close.

Bilbo cleared his throat, and both dwarves started, Fili turning sharply to face him.

“Hello,” Bilbo said. “Master dwarf—I wonder if I could have a word with you?”

Fili frowned at him, and Bilbo pointed towards the kitchen.

“We’ll leave the door open so we don’t lose sight of your brother,” he said. “I’m sure he can amuse himself in here for a few minutes. It is rather important, I think.”

To his surprise, Fili didn’t protest, but only made a few short gestures to Kili—who sat down abruptly on the floor—and then followed Bilbo into the kitchen. Once there, though, he refused to sit down, but only stood, facing the living room door so he could see his brother, and folded his arms in front of him.

“I said thank you,” he said. “I said it lots of times.”

“You did,” Bilbo said. “And then you took your brother’s doll away from him. That’s right, isn’t it? You told him he couldn’t have it?”

Fili’s face darkened. “How d’you know that?” he asked. “You don’t speak Khuzdul, you’re not a dwarf.”

“No, certainly not,” Bilbo said. “I only guessed because he seemed so upset. Now, Master Fili, I know you are very concerned for your brother’s wellbeing, and I certainly cannot fault you for that, but sometimes—well, I think you are rather strict with him. Unnecessarily so, in fact. What harm can it do to him to have a toy? Surely it will be a comfort, and that cannot be a bad thing.”

If Bilbo had hoped his plea would help to soften Fili’s demeanour towards him—and towards life in general—he found instead quite the opposite. Before he had spoken three sentences, Fili was scowling fiercely, and once he stopped speaking, the young dwarf fixed him with an accusatory glare.

“I’m not Fili,” he said. “I’m—Dorin. I told you that.”

Bilbo suddenly realised his mistake—so used had he become to thinking of the young dwarf as Fili that he had quite forgotten that he was even pretending to be called something else—but he found himself lacking the will to keep playing along.

“Of course I know you are Fili,” he said. “How could I not? Your brother calls your name continually, whenever he is afraid and tired or ill and does not remember not to speak. And you cannot blame him for that, Master Fili—he is young and frightened and he loves you very much.”

Fili’s scowl only grew more ferocious. “You don’t know anything about him,” he said. “You don’t know anything about either of us. I’m not Fili, I’m Dorin.”

Bilbo sighed. “And what is it you think I will do, if I know your real name?” he asked. “Who will I tell? It means nothing at all to me. I had never even met a dwarf until I met you two, and I know the names of none except Durin, who is very famous, you know. Why are you so afraid that I might learn something about you? I do think you might be a little honest with me from time to time, since you are living in my home.”

Fili shifted uneasily, glancing into the living room. “My name’s Dorin,” he muttered, but some of the conviction had gone from his voice.

“Fine,” Bilbo said. “Fine, Master Dorin. And what of the doll? I do so hate to see your brother looking so sad. And even if you are afraid a name might betray you in some way, surely a doll can do no such thing?”

Fili began to look quite anxious, though managing somehow to scowl at the same time, which produced a rather unsettling effect. “He’s always—He—” he said, and then shook his head. “We don’t need anything. He doesn’t need anything, I make sure he’s got what he needs.”

He glanced again into the living room, and then straightened sharply. Bilbo looked too, and saw—with a sinking heart—that Kili had disappeared. Fili was already hurrying into the room and Bilbo followed quickly behind him, hoping to find that the little dwarf had simply moved so he was out of view of the door.

And for once, Bilbo’s hopes were granted: Kili was sitting on the floor beside the armchair, just out of the line of sight from the kitchen doorway. He had his knees drawn up in front of him, and had tucked his new doll in between them and his chest, and when Bilbo and Fili arrived, he was engaged in stroking its hair. When he saw Fili rounding the corner, though, he jumped up and pushed the doll under the chair as though it had burnt him, then put his hands sharply behind his back. He didn’t speak, but stared at Fili, wide-eyed and worried.

Fili frowned at him. “What are you doing?” he asked.

Kili glanced up at Bilbo and shook his head.

“I didn’t take it,” he whispered to Fili. “It fell off the pile.” He pointed at the pile of toys that, Bilbo now realised, had been placed together as a kind of rejection. “I didn’t do anything, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

For a moment, Fili just stared at him, pale-faced. Bilbo had rather expected him to be furious, but instead, he looked oddly close to tears. Then he leaned down and picked up the doll, dusting it off a little.

“Here,” he said, holding it out. “You can—it’s yours, she gave it to you. So you can have it.”

Kili’s eyes widened. He bit his lip, but apparently decided against any kind of further discussion, and instead reached out and half-snatched the doll from Fili’s hand, cradling it to his chest. Then he suddenly grinned broadly and bounced a step forward, knocking his forehead against Fili’s with great enthusiasm. Bilbo found himself smiling too, quite without meaning to—it was astounding how quickly the little dwarf seemed to be able to return to a state of cheerfulness.

As Kili was stepping back, though, Fili caught him by the elbow and pulled him back, hugging him tightly.

“Don’t hide from me,” he murmured, so quietly that Bilbo could barely hear it. “I don’t like it.”

Bilbo found that something seemed to be lodged in his throat, and excused himself to the kitchen, where he could clear it noisily in peace. From the living room, he heard the sound of the two dwarves starting their game again.

But every time he saw Kili for the rest of the day, he had the doll tucked under his arm.

****

The next day, Bilbo woke up just before dawn. He had an odd sort of warm feeling in his stomach, and he lay enjoying it for a little while without quite knowing where it had come from. At last, he roused himself, and peered out of the window at the grey world outside. The snow was almost gone now, and it looked to be a clear day, though the sun was not yet risen. Bilbo yawned and climbed from the bed, shivering a little and drawing on his dressing gown and slippers as fast as may be, for outside his bedclothes it was very cold indeed. He went to the kitchen and set about making up the fire, hanging the kettle over it for tea. Then he padded down the little hallway to the dwarves’ room to see if they were yet awake.

When he put his head quietly around the door, though, he found the bed was empty. It was neatly made, and the toys that Rose had given them the day before were carefully stacked upon it, just as they had been on the living room floor after Fili had decided they were not to be accepted. The only one that was not there was the doll, and Bilbo frowned and wondered what it meant. He went to the room next door, assuming that they two dwarves had simply moved in there—for, being windowless, it was a little warmer in the winter—but found that bed empty, too, and the blankets removed.

It was then that Bilbo began to think that something might be very wrong.

“Fili?” he called, hastening back down the hall to the living room. “Kili?”

He checked the pantry door—locked—but noticed with a quailing heart that a large kitchen knife was missing from its usual place. He hurried to the bathroom, to find it empty and cold. “Fili?” he called again. “Come out, now, this is not a time for games.”

But there was no answer, and Bilbo fairly ran to the guest bedrooms close to his own, checking both in and under each of the beds, before going back to the dwarves’ bedroom and looking under the bed there, for good measure. But there were no dwarves to be seen, no laughing Kili, no sullen Fili. No dwarves, no doll, no blankets, no knife.

It wasn’t until Bilbo went back to the kitchen, all of a panic now, and saw that a number of apples had been taken from the fruit bowl and replaced with a small scrap of paper, that he truly lost hope that the dwarves might be hiding somewhere in the hobbit hole. He snatched up the paper and found that it read, in childish, wobbly letters: Thank you for bein nice and for the aples and the blankets Im sory we took them but we need them becuse Kili gets cold.

Bilbo stared at the paper in horror for a moment, and then was struck with a forcible memory of the freezing night when he had found the dwarves, of how ill and hungry they had been, how close to death.

“Oh, no,” he muttered. “Oh, no, ridiculous! Certainly they would not have left the safety of my home to go out there in the cold with—with wolves and goblins and who knows what! Surely not!”

But it could not be denied: the dwarves were not there, and the note was. And Bilbo flew to the front door, flinging it open in the hopes of seeing them, and finding his breath stolen by the icy bite of the air.

“Fili?” he called, voice echoing in the still morning. “Kili?”

But there was no answer.

The dwarves were gone.

Chapter Text

Bilbo took three steps out of his front door and stood, breath frosting in the grey air, frozen in indecision. Which way should he go? Certainly, if he chose wrong, it would be worse than useless—he would be moving away from the dwarves, rather than towards them, and increase their head-start, to boot. But how could he know? He opened his garden gate and peered at the ground, hoping to see the marks of small feet. Were they wearing their boots? Surely they must be, but Bilbo had not thought to check if they still stood beside the door. The thought of those two little dwarves, out there in the freezing morning with nothing to protect their feet—which were not at all hobbit-like, as Bilbo had observed with some disapproval—caused a great pang to his heart, and when he observed that not only were there no footsteps, but there could be none, for the ground was frozen solid, he began to feel rather faint.

“Oh,” he whispered. “Oh, I hope they are all right. I hope Kili is not scared.”

The words, softly though they were spoken, caused great clouds of breath to appear in front of Bilbo’s face, and he realised, suddenly, that he was still in his nightclothes, and very cold. And although most of him was still in the grip of panic, the more sensible part of him drew itself up and gave the rest of him a good talking-to.

“Now then, Bilbo Baggins,” it said. “You will do those dwarves no good by freezing to death in your nightgown, or by standing still and worrying, either. Time to get dressed and then find them. There’s no time to waste!”

And not a moment later, Bilbo was running back inside the house to his bedroom. He dressed as quickly as he was able, but even in such a short time he had time for many thoughts to run through his head, and these were of two kinds. The first kind were rather angry, full of notions about how very foolish those dwarves were to do something so stupid. But the second kind—the kind Bilbo returned to much more often, and for longer—were full of pity and fear, and hope that, wherever they were, the dwarves were safe, and not too cold, and that there were no wolves nearby, and that they had had some breakfast before they set out.

Bilbo had just finished pulling on his warmest coat when there came a sudden, frantic knocking at his front door. He shook his head, making his way towards it.

“There’s no time,” he said, even as he opened it. “I’m terribly sorry, but I’m too busy to—”

And then he stopped, for standing on his doorstep was Fili, out of breath and red in the face, with Kili in his arms, wrapped in Bilbo’s blankets.

“Mr Bilbo!” Fili said, gasping for air.

“Fili!” Bilbo cried, feeling a great shock of relief. “Foolish boy, where have you been?”

Fili shook his head, eyes wide and mouth open but soundless. He looked entirely terrified, and Bilbo frowned at him, but then was distracted by a terrible sort of grating rattle that set the hairs rising on the back of his neck. He looked sharply in the direction from which it had come, and immediately located the source of Fili’s terror. Kili’s face was barely visible amongst the blankets, but his features were slack, eyes half-closed, skin clammy and pale. The sight that made Bilbo’s heart tremble in his chest, though, was his lips—for they were not only pale, but blue, faint but unmistakeable, and it was from here that the dreadful noise had proceeded. It was not the cry of some fell beast, but the sound of Kili trying to breathe.

“Oh,” Bilbo whispered, horrified. And then, urgency rising in his belly, “Give him to me.”
Fili stared at him, still standing in the open doorway, clutching Kili to his chest. He seemed perhaps not even to have understood what Bilbo had said, and Bilbo reached out and took his shoulder, shaking him gently even as another grating hiss of breath wheezed in and out of Kili’s mouth.

“Fili!” he said sharply. “Give him to me so I can help him!”

Fili started, straightened, and then held Kili out. Bilbo seized him and flew towards the kitchen, not even troubling to make sure the front door was closed. Once there, he saw to his relief that the kettle he had set over the fire was bubbling away merrily, and he shifted Kili so he could hold him with one arm, trying to ignore the crackling, irregular breaths that he could feel in his very bones. He found a large bowl, filled it with steaming water, and then found the bottle that Lily had left with him. There was still a little of her tincture left in it—thank goodness—and Bilbo poured several drops of it into the water and stirred it with a spoon, sitting himself down in front of it with Kili on his lap.

“Fili, could you fetch me a tea-towel?” he said to the elder dwarf, who was standing near the door with his eyes fixed on his brother, wringing his hands until they were white and bloodless.

At that moment, Kili drooped alarmingly in his arms, and Bilbo caught at him quickly so that he would not hurt himself on the edge of the table or—worse—fall into the boiling water. When he sat him back up, he found to his horror that the little dwarf seemed to have lost consciousness entirely, and even the grating breaths had stopped coming now, the blue colour spreading to his cheeks.

“Fili!” Bilbo snapped, looking to see that Fili had not moved from his place. “A tea-towel! Now!”

Fili started, and then ran to the sink, catching up a tea-towel and holding it out to Bilbo with a trembling hand. Bilbo took it and then arranged Kili so he was leaning over the bowl, draping the tea-towel over his head. He could hear his own heart beating loudly in his ears, but he forced his panic down and when he spoke, he sounded, if not calm, then at least not nearly as terrified as he felt.

“Wake up, then, master dwarf,” he said, trying to sound commanding and rubbing Kili’s chest firmly with his palm. “Wake up, it’s time for your medicine.”

The little dwarf just hung heavily in his arms for a long, quiet moment, no sound of breath coming from him, no feel of it under Bilbo’s palm. The silence that filled the kitchen was thick with fear, oppressive in its density. Bilbo felt his mouth go dry, and thought what—what if Kili died? What if he was already dead? What would Bilbo do then?

And then Kili shuddered a little in Bilbo’s arms, and sucked in a creaking, painful breath, and Bilbo felt his own chest tighten as if in sympathy, but oh—oh, how relieved he was.

“That’s right,” he said, unable to stop his voice from wavering. “That’s right, my boy. Just breathe now. You’ll be all right now, just breathe. In and out, there you are.” He had no idea if the little dwarf was even awake to hear him, and if he could understand if he was, but he spoke anyway, because the scraping sound of Kili’s breath was terrible and the silences between even more so. “There now,” he said. “There now. There now.”

It was a long, painful process. Kili did not stop breathing again—and Bilbo was very grateful for that—but it took a long time before his breaths began to come easily, and even then, there was a wheeze at the end that Bilbo did not like. Twice, he asked Fili to add new hot water to the bowl, and Fili ran to do so, but otherwise stood silent and very still, except for the way his hands twisted around each other as he kept his eyes fixed on his brother. Bilbo’s arms grew weary from holding Kili over the bowl, and his stomach growled in protest—for it was now more than an hour since he’d awakened, and still no breakfast, nor even a cup of tea—but there was nothing to be done. There was nothing to be done but sit, and listen to Kili slowly drag himself back from the edge of death, and talk himself hoarse so that he didn’t have to listen more closely.

At last—at long last—something new happened: Kili began to cry. It was the first sign he’d given of being awake, and although it was a pitiful one, nonetheless, Bilbo could not help but be a little relieved. Kili cried almost silently, but the hitching of his chest was clear enough under Bilbo’s palm, and although his breath was almost clear now, Bilbo felt they could take no chances. Crying led to blocked noses and difficulty breathing, and that was absolutely not something that could be allowed.

“Sh,” he said. “Sh, now, my dear boy. Sh, you are safe. You’re safe now, sh now.”

But Kili did not stop crying, and at last, Bilbo lifted him up, away from the bowl, and turned him around drawing him close and stroking his hair.

“There, now,” he murmured. “You’re safe. Sh, now, don’t cry. Don’t cry, my dear.”

He rocked Kili gently in his arms, and Kili clung to him and settled his chin on Bilbo’s shoulder and breathed loudly in Bilbo’s ear—and although it was not the most pleasant thing to listen to, still, it was so much improved that Bilbo was grateful indeed for every sniffle and hiccup.

“Well, then,” he said. “Well, then. Here we are, now. We’re all all right, now. Everything’s fine.”

And so he went on, murmuring nonsense and listening to Kili’s hushed sobs until they subsided, and until it seemed to Bilbo, both from the deepening of his breath and the way Kili’s weight seemed suddenly to drape across Bilbo’s chest, that the little dwarf had fallen asleep. Bilbo closed his eyes a moment, tightening his grip on Kili, and perhaps he shed a tear or two himself, though he would certainly have denied it.

When he opened his eyes again, his gaze landed on Fili, who stood in just the same place he had stood since he last fetched water for the bowl. His face was white and set, eyes seeming much darker than usual, and he stared at Bilbo without seeming to see him. There were parts of Bilbo that were still quite exasperated by Fili’s behaviour at taking his brother, so newly recovered, out into the freezing cold with nothing but a few blankets to keep the winter at bay. But there were other parts of him that could not look on that face, its features frozen in fear, with anything but a great, overwhelming pity, and it was these parts of him that won out—for after all, what good would it do to shout at a child who was clearly punishing himself far more than Bilbo could ever hope to.

“Fili,” Bilbo said, and although he spoke quietly, Fili started as though he had been slapped. “It’s all right, now. Your brother is all right.”

Fili blinked at him, and his mouth opened a little, but he did not speak. Bilbo smiled at him—though he felt as though perhaps his smile was rather crooked—and then beckoned.

“Come here,” he said. “Do you want to hold him?”

This was not, as one might imagine, simply a selfish offer on Bilbo’s part. It was true that his arms were aching from so long of holding Kili over the bowl, and he was not, in general, much given to hugs and cuddles. But he found himself oddly reluctant to let go of the warm weight of the little dwarf in his arms, the heart beating against his chest and the breath in his ear. Still, it was clear to him that Fili’s need was far greater than his, and although Kili seemed quite content to slumber on his shoulder, Bilbo nonetheless had little doubt that he would sleep more soundly in his brother’s arms.

Fili, though, did not come closer. He only shook his head and twisted his hands together convulsively.

Bilbo found himself unsure what to do at this juncture, for it had not occurred to him that Fili would refuse. “Come, now,” he said. “Don’t be foolish.”

But whatever else he might have said—and if he was honest with himself, he did not know what to say next—it was prevented by Kili. The little dwarf shifted in his arms, tightening his grip a little, and then opened his eyes—not all the way, but a little.

“Fili?” he mumbled, breath still wheezing a little.

“He is there,” Bilbo said, shuffling until the little dwarf could see his brother over Bilbo’s shoulder.

“Fili,” Kili said again, and then seemed to be trying to disentangle himself from Bilbo. He had no strength in him at all, though, and Bilbo hastily intervened.

“Don’t trouble yourself,” he said, getting to his feet and then kneeling next to Fili. “Here he is.”

And he held Kili out to his brother. And now Fili had no choice in the matter of whether to take him or not, for as soon as Kili was within reach he held his arms out, still seeming to be mostly asleep.

“Fili ’scold an I—” he said. “Fili?”

Fili hesitated only for the briefest of moments, and then stepped forward and took his brother in his arms. Kili settled into the embrace with an indecipherable murmur, and seemed to fall back to sleep in less than no time, chin nestled in the crook of Fili’s neck. Fili looked rather awkward, carrying his brother face-to-face rather than his preferred method of balancing him on his hip, but he did not try to shift his hold. Instead, he bit his lip, staring at nothing and looking like he might cry.

“Well,” Bilbo said, and then dusted himself down, for want of anything better to do to feel brisk and productive. “Well, I will—get you a chair, so you can sit by the fire.”

He hurried into the living room and took one of the armchairs, half-carrying, half-dragging it into the kitchen and installing it in front of the hearth, where the flames danced merrily up the chimney.

“Come over here,” he said.

Fili seemed not to hear him, and Bilbo went over to him and took him by the shoulders.

“You should be by the fire,” he said. “Both of you should.”

Fili didn’t speak, but when Bilbo firmly steered him towards the chair, he went without complaint. There followed a little awkwardness, for Fili could not climb into the chair without putting Kili down, but seemed completely incapable of even thinking of doing so, and Bilbo eventually had to bodily lift both dwarves into the seat—and found himself rather grateful that he was not called upon to carry both at once more often. At last, though, they were settled, and Kili had not awoken once during the whole process, or so it seemed to Bilbo. He wondered if the little dwarf ought to be in bed, after his episode of illness. But then, he thought that it was better for him to be upright, so as not to obstruct his breathing, and he seemed to be able to sleep perfectly happily in his brother’s arms.

“There,” Bilbo said, kneeling beside the armchair. “It’s all better now, so you don’t have to be frightened any more, master dwarf.”

Fili stared at him over his brother’s shoulder. He blinked, swallowed once or twice, and then, without warning, dissolved into silent, shuddering tears.

“Oh,” Bilbo murmured. He had become rather used to Kili’s tears in the last few days, but to see Fili—always so careful, so controlled—so overcome with emotion was enough to leave him feeling rather at sea. Fili tightened his grip on his brother and buried his face in Kili’s hair, shoulders heaving. And Bilbo, unable to watch such a thing without at least trying to give some comfort, found himself standing up and leaning forward awkwardly, putting his arms around both dwarves. To his surprise, Fili seemed to lean into his touch and even let go of his brother with one hand to clutch at Bilbo’s shirt.

“Oh dear,” Bilbo murmured, rubbing a hand gently on Fili’s back. “Sh, now. It’s all right, now. It’s all right, I will help you, I promise.”

It was really rather difficult, stooping there trying to hug two dwarves at once. Bilbo’s back began to complain rather quickly, and he experimented with crouching and then with kneeling to see if it would help (which it did not). He did not, however, experiment with leaving go of the dwarves entirely—for Fili seemed so distraught that poor Bilbo could not manage to harden his heart enough to do such a thing. And so he stood (and crouched, and knelt) and held Fili tight, and Kili with him, and was grateful that both of them were alive and back were he could see them, even if not quite none the worse for wear.

At last, Fili stopped crying, and let go of Bilbo, and Bilbo straightened up (not without a twinge or two) and frowned down at him. He looked pale, cheeks and eyes red with crying, and he still held onto Kili as though the little dwarf were the only thing keeping him from drowning. Bilbo felt a sharp pang of sympathy in his heart, and he patted Fili’s shoulder.

“There, now,” he said. “You’ve had quite a nerve-wracking day, and it’s not even time for elevenses yet. And did you have any breakfast before you went running out into the cold?”

Fili blinked and shook his head, and Bilbo tutted—but in his heart, he was almost pleased, for a lack of breakfast was something that he could easily remedy.

“Well, you sit there, then,” he said. “I will get you something.”

He bustled around, finally making the tea for which he had set the kettle boiling more than an hour before, and scrambling some eggs, serving them with toast and butter. He thought that little Kili might not be able to eat anything more substantial after his attack, and so he left the bacon and sausages in the pantry.

“Here we are, here we are,” he said, finding a stool that would act as a little table and setting the food and tea beside the dwarves’ chair. “Now, I know your brother needs to sleep and recover, but I think he should eat something, don’t you?”

Fili rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes, then nodded. He shook Kili gently, and turned him to face the food.

“Time for breakfast, brother,” he murmured.

“Mm,” Kili mumbled. He fumbled for the fork, and Fili picked it up and pressed it into his hand, then helped him as he struggled, still half-asleep, to get the food into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed, chewed and swallowed, all with a look on his face as though he wasn’t really present. And at last, the plate was clean and Fili seemed satisfied.

“You can go back to sleep, if you want,” he said.

Kili simply sat on Fili’s lap, blinking at nothing. Then he frowned down at his hands.

“’ve lost my doll,” he mumbled, then groped at Fili’s arm. “Fili—Fili. My doll.”

“You dropped it,” Fili said, and a shadow of remembered fear crossed his face that made Bilbo wonder what kind of state Kili had been in that caused him to drop his doll. He opened his mouth to say something about going out to look for it later, but before he could, Fili reached inside his jacket and pulled out the doll, looking a little battered but otherwise intact. “I saved it for you,” he said, and held it out to Kili.

Kili took the doll and hugged it to his chest. “Thank you,” he said, and then, drowsily, something in that dwarven language that had a soft smile and a quiet response coming to his brother’s mouth. Kili leaned back, and Fili tucked the blankets more tightly around him, and then wrapped his arms around Kili’s chest,

“Go to sleep,” he said. “We’re safe now.”

Kili needed no more prompting, but was asleep in a moment, head lolling back against his brother’s shoulder. He let go of the doll, and Fili caught it and tucked it in among the blankets, then pressed a soft kiss to his brother’s temple.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered, voice wavering a little.

At that, Bilbo felt that perhaps it was time for a little gentle chiding. “Master dwarf,” he said, keeping his voice low, “what on earth possessed you to go running out into the cold today? With you and your brother both so recently ill, and the weather certainly not at its best. Am I to understand that my hospitality is so very unpleasant that sleeping under a tree in the middle of winter seems preferable?”

Fili stared up at him, eyes large, and for a moment Bilbo thought he was going to burst into tears again, and rather regretted his question, though it was a fair one, after all. But Fili only swallowed hard.

“I thought he was better,” he said. “And—the snow was all gone, so I thought—I thought—” He shook his head. “But then he got so cold and he couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t know what to do.” He closed his eyes a second, and a tear rolled down his cheek. “I didn’t know what to do,” he whispered.

“Ah, well,” Bilbo said, leaning over to pat his arm. “Well—I will not say it was a sensible thing you did—no, very foolish, certainly—but you have learned your lesson, and your brother is breathing well enough now. And at least you had the sense to come back when he fell ill. I think you have saved his life today.”

“He wouldn’t have been ill in the first place if I—” Fili started, and then swallowed the rest, expression twisting. “What if— What if—?”

“Well, it didn’t,” Bilbo said firmly. “And so there’s no sense troubling yourself about it. But now, master dwarf, if you please, why did you leave? I know you do not trust me, but I promise you I am not going to do you any harm, and I am certainly much less likely to hurt you than all the many things you can find in the wilderness. I know I am sometimes not the most patient host—I am not used to children, you know—but I would much rather you were here than lost out there, even if sometimes I may not show it. And I am sorry—I am sorry I did not make that clearer.”

“No, it’s—” Fili said. “No, you’ve been—you’ve been really nice, and Kili likes you and I—” He stopped. “It’s not—it’s—I—” He stopped again, hesitating, as though he could not quite bring himself to say whatever was on the tip of his tongue. And then he took a deep breath.

“We’re supposed to be meeting—someone,” he said, speaking rather fast. “We’re supposed to—that’s why we left, because we have to meet them.”

“Oh,” Bilbo said, sitting up a little straighter at this first sign that the little dwarves knew anyone in the world apart from each other. “Oh—well—who are you meeting?”

Fili shifted anxiously in his chair. “We’re—our—our friends,” he said. “We’re supposed to meet them.”

“I see,” Bilbo said, disappointed, but not very surprised, at Fili’s reticence. “Well, I’m sure your—friends will understand that you have been unavoidably delayed. But where are you supposed to meet them? Perhaps we could send a message to tell them where you are.”

Fili’s mouth set into an unhappy line. “I don’t know,” he mumbled. “It’s—north, I think it’s north. We were trying to get there, but then—we got lost and—we haven’t been able to find the way back.”

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said. “How far north? In The Shire?”

Fili frowned at him. “Where’s The Shire?” he asked.

“Why,” Bilbo said, staring at him in astonishment. “Why, you’re in The Shire, master dwarf! It is this land, where the hobbits live.”

“Oh.” Fili considered this, frown deepening. “No, it’s not where there’s hobbits. It’s somewhere else. Maybe—more north?”

Bilbo began to understand that Fili had very little idea of where he was, and quite possibly very little idea of where he was supposed to be going, either. “All right,” he said, trying not to sound too worried. “Well—when are you supposed to meet them? Perhaps we have a little time to find out where this place is.”

“I—what day is it?” Fili asked.

“Sunday,” Bilbo replied, but this only caused Fili to frown.

“I mean—the date,” he said. “What number day is it?”

“Oh—well, it is the sixteenth of December, so I believe,” Bilbo said, after a moment’s calculation.

Fili’s face fell at this pronouncement. “December?” he asked.

“Certainly December, though whether it is the sixteenth or not may be arguable,” Bilbo said. “And when are you supposed to meet your friends?”

Fili’s shoulders sagged. “October,” he said. “We were supposed to meet them in October. But—we got lost.”

For a moment, Bilbo found himself speechless. “You certainly did,” he said at last. “You must be very lost indeed.”

At this, Fili began to cry again—not great, heaving sobs like before, but silent tears running down his cheeks. “We were supposed to meet them,” he said, “and then we got lost. And I kept trying to find the way but then—some things happened and we got more lost and now I don’t know. I didn’t know what to do so I thought—if we went north we’d find it. But I don’t know where we are and nothing looks like anything I know, and I don’t know how to get back. I don’t know what to do.”

Bilbo’s heart experienced a fresh pang at the misery in Fili’s voice, and at the thought of his two little guests wandering in the wilderness for months on end, and he leaned over and hugged Fili as well as he could without disturbing Kili. “Oh, now, master dwarf,” he said. “You have done very well. You have done so very well to bring your brother and yourself this far without any serious illness or injury.” He paused, thinking of Kili’s lips turning blue. “Well—at least, nothing that cannot be remedied. And now you are safe, and I am quite sure your friends would much prefer it if you were warm and safe and well-fed here with me than wandering out in the cold trying to find your way. Why, it is very likely that they are not at the place where you were supposed to meet any more, but out looking for you. And if they are, it is much more sensible for you to stay in one place, so as to make it easier for them to find you.”

This only served to make Fili look even more unhappy. “How will they know where to look?” he asked. “I don’t know where we are. How will they know when I don’t know?”

“Well,” Bilbo said, and then tried to think of something to say next. If he was honest with himself, he was very concerned by the fact that Fili did not seem to know where the place he was trying to get to was—for how was Bilbo to find their friends for them if he did not even know where to start looking? But Fili was staring at him with a despairing expression, and Bilbo felt called upon to put on a brave face for the poor child, even if he did not have the first idea how to solve this problem. “Well,” he said again, “we will look at some maps. Later, when your brother is in bed, we will look at some maps—I have many, you know—and see if there are any places you do recognise. And if there are, well, I will show you were we are now compared to those places, and then we will have a start. And once we have taken a first step, well, that’s almost as good as making it all the way to the finish.” And he said this with such confidence that he quite convinced himself, as well.

Fili sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “What if there’s nothing on the maps?” he asked.

“Oh, I’m quite sure there will be,” Bilbo said, beginning to become accustomed to sounding confident. “I have maps of the whole of Middle Earth, you know. But now—what about your home? Surely you know where that is. Can you not go there, instead of to this place that you have lost? I’m sure your friends will look for you there.”

Fili’s jaw tightened. “No, we can’t go there,” he said. “We can’t—we can’t go anywhere. I don’t know where else to go. I don’t know how to find our friends.”

Bilbo, sensing a fresh bout of tears on the way, hastily retreated from the subject. “Oh, well, never mind, then,” he said. “We will find the place you are supposed to meet them, and I will help you send a message to them so that they know where you are. And then you won’t have to go out in the cold again, and your brother will get better properly. Now, don’t worry, Master Fili. Everything will be quite all right, I assure you.”

Fili sniffed again, but he stopped crying, and looked, if not brighter, then at least a little less gloomy. “Will you really help me?” he asked.

“Of course I will help you,” Bilbo said, managing not to sound quite as exasperated as he felt. “Of course I will help you, master dwarf.”

Fili nodded, then hugged Kili closer to him. “All right,” he murmured. “Yes, all right. Thank you.”

Bilbo smiled. “You’re very welcome,” he said.

Chapter Text

Bilbo made some more breakfast, and he and Fili ate—rather awkwardly, in Fili’s case, since his still had his brother on his lap. Then, reasoning that he felt so very much better after breakfast that more of the same could only be a good thing, Bilbo made second breakfast, and they ate that, too. Kili seemed to be breathing fairly easily, but there was still a wheeze at the end of his breath that Bilbo did not like, and so they woke him up and had him sit over the steam again, before retiring to the living room, where Bilbo had stoked up the fire. There, Bilbo found his maps and spread them out on the table, and Fili stood and peered at them, a drowsy Kili balanced on his hip.

“Now then, master dwarf,” Bilbo said, pointing at The Shire, “we are here. Do you see? East of the White Downs, and west of the Old Forest. And to the north there is Lake Evendim. Is that where you were supposed to meet your friends?”

Fili stared at the map, eyes roving all over it. But at last he shook his head.

“I don’t know,” he muttered, but he would not meet Bilbo’s eye.

“Hm,” Bilbo said, wondering if Fili truly did not know, or if he simply did not want to tell Bilbo. “Have you been there before, this place where you are supposed to meet your friends?”

Fili nodded.

“And is it near a large lake?” Bilbo asked, pointing towards Lake Evendim.

Slowly, Fili shook his head. “It was—in the woods,” he said. “It was a place in the woods.”

“A village or a town?” Bilbo asked. “Do you remember the name?”

“No, there weren’t any houses,” Fili said. “It was just a place. We’d been there already and—Kili liked it because he saw a hedgehog. And there was lots of mushrooms.”

Bilbo frowned at him. “Well, that’s not—” he started, and then stopped himself. It was hardly the child’s fault that he’d been instructed to go to a place that was so very nondescript. Mushrooms and a hedgehog, indeed! Not much use now that it was the depths of winter. “Then—I suppose you are very familiar with this place?” he said. “Or—how were you supposed to find it again?”

“No, we only went there once,” Fili said. “But—we only had to follow the path back, because we’d only just been there the day before. Only—we got lost. And then—then we got really lost, and now I don’t know.” He scowled at the map. “I don’t know,” he muttered.

Bilbo stared at the map himself. This place—the place where the dwarves had been supposed to meet their friends—he had assumed it would be somewhere with a name, at least. Somewhere that could be located, if not on his map, then by someone, somewhere in the world. But an uninhabited forest glade that almost certainly no longer contained any mushrooms—it seemed this was all going to be rather more complicated than Bilbo thought.

“Well, I think we can safely say that your friends will not be still waiting for you there, if there is no shelter or any kind of village,” he said. “And it sounds as if there is no place to send a message to, either. We will have to think of something else.”

“Fili?” Kili mumbled at that moment, tugging on his brother’s sleeve. “Are we going back to see Mama now?”

“Not yet,” Fili said. “We’re going to stay here with Mr Bilbo for a while.”

“What about Mama?” Kili asked. “Is she coming here, too?”

Fili’s expression twisted, and Bilbo felt very sorry for him. He was not sure if it was simply that Kili was not fully awake, or if he had truly forgotten that their mother was dead. Were small children forgetful in that way? Bilbo had not the first idea. But surely it could not have been at all pleasant for Fili.

“Maybe in a while,” Fili said. “But not now. But it’s nice here, isn’t it? You like it here.”

“’M cold,” Kili mumbled, burrowing his face back into Fili’s shoulder. Fili’s face creased in a troubled frown and he moved closer to the fire.

“We’ll get you warm,” he said. “You’ve got to stay warm, now.” He looked up at Bilbo. “He can’t get cold any more—will you help me?”

“Of course,” Bilbo said. “I have no more desire to see him cold than you do.” And perhaps that was not quite the case—for Fili’s desire to keep his brother warm seemed to be verging on irrationality—but Bilbo remembered that terrible moment when Kili had stopped breathing entirely, and did not feel quite rational himself. He built up the fire a little, and Fili settled himself beside it, Kili—fast asleep now—in his lap.

“He should have more medicine,” he said. “That woman—that healer. Can she bring us more?”

“I will certainly ask her to,” Bilbo said. “But I do not want to leave the two of you alone—not until I am quite sure your brother has recovered. But now, Master Fili, what about your friends? How are we to send a message to them?”

Fili seemed to hunch a little, frowning down at his brother. “I don’t know,” he muttered. “I don’t know what to do.”

Bilbo sat down in the second armchair and pondered. Finding the meeting place seemed quite hopeless, not to mention pointless, since the idea that the dwarves’ friends would have waited there for two months with no shelter seemed almost impossible. Sending a message there, even if they knew where it was, would be purposeless for the same reason. But—

“Ah,” Bilbo said, sitting up a little. “And what about your friends? Do you know where they live? Perhaps we could send a message to them there.”

Fili looked up at him, his face a picture of indecision, though what he could not decide, Bilbo had no idea. He did not speak, and after a moment of waiting, Bilbo tried again.

“Master Dwarf?” he said. “Do you know where your friends live?”

Fili bit his lip. “Yes,” he said. “But—I can’t tell you.”

“Oh, really,” Bilbo said, feeling exasperated once again. “And what is the purpose of all this secrecy, may I ask? Do you think I will go running off and—bother them in some way? I suppose I could sit on their doorsteps and refuse to go away until they invite me in for tea. A fearsome threat I am, indeed!”

Fili began to look quite anxious. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry, I think you’re nice. I do think you’re nice, you’re really nice. But I—I’m not allowed to tell. I can’t tell you, I’m sorry, I’d tell you if I could.”

Bilbo subsided into his chair at that, feeling somewhat mollified, if still rather frustrated. “Well, that all seems very foolish,” he said. “Though I suppose you have your reasons.” Probably foolish reasons, he added in his mind, but he had no wish to see Fili cry again, and he felt as if things were getting a little overwrought, so he did not say it out loud.

“I’m sorry,” Fili said again, hugging his brother a little closer to him. “Thank you for being nice. And for saving Kili.”

“You are welcome, of course,” Bilbo said, and then sighed heavily. “But I still do not know how we can send a message to your friends, then. Unless—could you write to them? Do you know how to write?”

Fili looked offended. “Of course I do,” he said. “I’m not a baby.”

“Well, no, I suppose not,” Bilbo said, though in fact he knew very little even about when hobbit children began to read and write, let alone dwarf children. But of course the young dwarf could write—he had written the note that Bilbo had found that morning, after all. “But then—but then you could write to them, could you not? You wouldn’t have to tell me where the letter was going, or what it said. You could write to them in secret, and tell them that you’re here and to come and get you.”

He felt very pleased with himself for this plan, which seemed to include both the goal of sending the message and the need of Fili to keep his secrets undisturbed. Unfortunately, Fili did not look nearly so happy as Bilbo might have expected, and Bilbo’s spirits began to sink a little again.

“What is the matter now?” he asked. “Surely there can be no further objection?”

Fili shook his head. “I think—maybe someone else will read it, if I send it to them,” he said. “I think—because it’s a long way, I think, and someone else might get it first.”

“Someone else?” Bilbo asked. “Who else? Who would be interested in reading a letter from you to your friends?”

Fili closed his mouth, looking pale and worried, and Bilbo began suddenly to think, in a way he had not really before, about all the things that Fili had talked about since the dwarves had arrived at Bag End. About how frightened Kili was by any show of anger, and how mistrustful Fili was of strangers. And, of course, of how both of them were keeping many secrets—the one more successfully than the other—which seemed to Bilbo to be hardly worth keeping at all.

“Hm,” he said, tapping his fingers on his knee as he considered all of this. “Master Fili—is there—is someone trying to find you? I mean—someone other than your friends. Someone you are frightened of?”

Fili stared at him for a moment, then looked quickly away.

“No,” he said, sounding rather muffled. “No-one’s looking for us. We’re—we’re orphans and no-one cares about us.”

“I see,” Bilbo said, and decided not to ask why, in that case, Fili was so very worried that someone might read his message. Instead, he set himself to think his way around this new obstacle. “Well—could you write it in your own language, perhaps?” he asked. “Do your friends speak the same language? Or perhaps in a cipher of some kind?”

Fili shook his head. “Other people—maybe other people speak it, too,” he said. “And I don’t know any cipher that they don’t know. I mean—I mean maybe they might know it. If there was someone reading it, they might know it.”

Bilbo felt frustrated all over again. “Well, honestly,” he muttered, but did not voice any more of his thoughts, for if he was to be truthful with himself, he could hardly blame Fili for not knowing any complicated codes in which to write. After all, he was only a child. But here was another dead end, and Bilbo sat and stared into the fire and felt rather grumpy for quite a little while.

“Mr Bilbo?” Fili said at last, and Bilbo tore himself away from his gloomy thoughts and the dancing flames and turned to look at him.

“What is it?” he asked, perhaps in a slightly sharper tone than was warranted.

Fili stared at him, his eyes seeming large and rather bright. “We’re never going to get back, are we?” he said, almost in a whisper, and Bilbo felt suddenly that he was being quite the fool himself. Sitting feeling sorry for himself for having to look after two lost souls, without ever considering how it might feel to be so lost and alone.

“Oh,” he said. “Oh, yes. Yes, of course you are. We will find a way, master dwarf, don’t you worry. Just worry about keeping your brother warm and your own belly full, and I will worry about how to get you back where you belong.”

Fili sniffled a little and huddled into the armchair, wrapping his arms tightly around Kili’s chest. Kili stirred at this, and opened sleepy eyes.

“Mama?” he mumbled.

“Sh,” Fili murmured. “Go back to sleep.” But a quiet tear rolled down his cheek, and Bilbo, pretending not to notice, set himself to thinking once again. There must be a way—surely there must.

But if there was, he did not think of it that morning, and when Lily appeared on the doorstep in the early afternoon, he was no closer to a solution than he had been before.

“Ah, good,” he said, stepping aside to let her in and closing the door firmly behind her—for he did not care to let even the slightest draught into the hobbit hole after what had happened to Kili that morning. “Yes, excellent—I have been wanting to see you, but I was rather afraid to leave the dwarves alone.”

“Afraid?” Lily asked. “Why afraid? They are small enough—I doubt they can cause so very much damage if you are only away for a short time.”

“Oh, it is not that,” Bilbo said. “It is—well, it does not matter now. But the little one—the little one had another attack this morning, and I would ask you to please come and see him and give us some more of your medicine.”

Lily raised her eyebrows. “Not better after all?” she said. “Hm. But I know very little about dwarves. I would not have expected him to become ill again after he seemed so lively last time I visited—at least, not if he has been properly looked after.”

Bilbo felt rather guilty at this, though he did his best not to show it—and after all, he could hardly be considered responsible for Kili’s plight, when he had not had the first idea that Fili was planning to run away. He accompanied Lily through to the living room, where Kili was sitting in front of the fire, bundled up in blankets on Fili’s lap. One one or two occasions that day, Bilbo had suggested that Fili might want to let his brother sit alone, or even put him to bed—for he felt that it must be very hard for the older dwarf to constantly be holding the younger. But Fili had refused every suggestion with such vehemence that Bilbo had stopped trying. And Kili, only ever half-awake, apparently having been quite exhausted by his ordeal, seemed quite content to be held. And so there they were as Bilbo and Lily came in, Fili murmuring something to his brother, who seemed to be fast asleep.

“Can you pick him up so I can see him?” Lily asked Bilbo. “We will need to unwrap some of those blankets, as well.”

“Of course,” Bilbo said, and leaned over to take Kili into his arms. Fili let him go readily enough, but the moment Bilbo lifted him, Kili’s eyes opened and he started to struggle violently.

“No,” he cried, his voice hoarse and thin. “No, Fili! Fili, he’s got me! Fili, help, he’s got me!”

Fili leapt to his feet immediately, half-snatching his brother back from Bilbo. “No, no,” he crooned. “No-one’s here, no-one’s got you. You’re just dreaming. Wake up, wake up.”

Kili let out a kind of hiccuping sob and put his arms round Fili’s neck. Fili rocked him and whispered to him, and Bilbo felt suddenly very tired.

“A bad dream,” he said to Lily, really just for something to say, as he was sure she had already understood what had happened. Then he reached out and touched Kili gently on the shoulder. “It’s just me,” he said. “Just me, your friend Mr Bilbo. We just want to look at you so that we can see if you need more medicine.”

Kili only pressed his face deeper into Fili’s shoulder, but help came from a surprising quarter. For Fili himself pried his brother’s arms from around his neck, hushing and stroking him as he did so.

“The lady needs to look at you,” he said. “She needs to, brother. She’s a healer and you were so ill. She’ll make you better. It’s important.”

“Don’t leave me,” Kili whispered, and Fili’s expression twisted.

“I’m not leaving,” he said. “I’m here. I’m never going to leave you, I promise.” He paused and swallowed, then looked up at Lily. “Can I hold him?” he asked. “Can you look at him if I hold him? He’s not—he doesn’t wake up quickly after dreams.”

Lily frowned down at him, then gave a curt nod.

“Stand on a chair,” she said. “I’m too old to get down on the floor with you.”

Bilbo quickly found a wooden stool, and helped Fili to climb up on it without dropping his brother. Then Fili coaxed and crooned and begged until Kili finally allowed some of his blankets to be unwrapped. Lily, meanwhile, stood by with a disapproving frown that gradually grew to something a little more sympathetic.

“What are you so frightened about?” she asked, though rather in an undertone, as if perhaps she did not intend anyone to answer. And, since Bilbo did not know why Kili was so frightened and neither Kili or Fili seemed interested in enlightening anyone about it, no-one did.

At last, though, Kili was ready for inspection, and inspect him Lily did, peering in his eyes and mouth and ears, pressing her fingertips against his throat and her ear against his chest. Once she had finished, she asked Bilbo several questions about just what had happened, and finally shook her head, glancing back at Kili, who appeared to have mostly fallen asleep again.

“Not better, that much is quite clear,” she said. “But it is odd, that he should seem so for more than a day and then suddenly sicken again. Was he exerting himself overmuch when it happened?”

“Well—” Bilbo said, and then realised that he had not the first idea. He looked at Fili, who seemed to shrink a little, his face a picture of guilt.

“He got really cold,” he said, voice sinking to a whisper as he hugged Kili to himself. “It was so cold outside.”

“Outside?” Lily said, sounding astounded. “In the bitter cold? And why on Earth was he outside when he is so newly recovered from a very dangerous illness?”

Fili looked like he might be about to cry, and Bilbo, without really thinking about it, found himself saying, “Oh, but it was my fault. My fault, yes, certainly. I thought it would be nice for him to have a little fresh air, and I never considered—that—” And here he trailed off, heart quailing, for Lily had turned a look of such furious disbelief on him that he found he had not the courage to continue.

“Bilbo Baggins,” she said, “I’ve a good mind to take these children away from you. Of all things, to take a child outside on a freezing day when they have recently suffered from a disease of the chest and lungs! Why, it defies all common sense. I know you have no experience, but I did not think you so very foolish.”

Bilbo found himself half-irritated and half-terrified, and could not quite decide which emotion was more important. “Well, I must say, it was an accident,” he said. “And you’ve no right to speak of taking them away. I found them and they are my responsibility.”

“You might think of looking after them properly, then,” Lily snapped, and then shook her head. “I am quite amazed. But now, this child is clearly weak, and just as clearly able to seem much less so than he is. You must not be fooled by this—he is not to go outside again, and he is to be kept warm and not to exert himself too much, for as long as is necessary until we can be sure the weakness is past. I will bring you more medicine, if you can assure me that you will follow my instructions.”

This last was said in a challenging tone, with a raised eyebrow, and Bilbo bristled a little.

“Of course I will,” he said. “And—thank you.” He tried to sound properly grateful—for indeed, if he considered what Lily thought he had done, he could not blame her very much for her fury—but he was not quite successful.

“Hmph,” Lily said, and turned to the two little dwarves. “Now, young master dwarf,” she said to Fili. “It seems you are the most responsible person in this hobbit hole. You are to see that Mr Bilbo does what he is told, do you understand? And if you ever troubled for your brother’s safety, or your own, you are to tell me or my sister about it. Are we agreed?”

Fili was flushing a dull red, and looked quite miserable. He was not able to meet Lily’s eye, still less Bilbo’s and his shoulders were hunched around his ears.

“Mr Bilbo’s nice,” he muttered. “He’s been nice to us, he’s not bad.”

Lily’s eyebrows drew down. “Nice or not,” she said, “You will tell me if he isn’t looking after you properly.”

Fili hesitated, then nodded quickly, still looking anywhere but at Lily or Bilbo.

“But you don’t need to stay here,” he said. “I’ll tell you, I promise. So you can go home, now.”

Lily drew herself up, looking most displeased. But she shook her head and turned to Bilbo.

“I will make more medicine,” she said. “You be sure and keep him warm and well-fed. Both of them.”

And with that, she swept out of the room, not waiting for Bilbo to accompany her to the door. He tried to do so anyway—for he could not bear to be rude, even to someone who had just harangued him so vehemently—but by the time he reached the hall, she had already closed the door firmly behind her. Bilbo stood a moment in silence, then sighed and turned back to the living room.

There, he found Fili still standing on the stool, looking as though he rather wished he could be anywhere else at all.

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said. “That was quite unpleasant.”

“I’m sorry, Mr Bilbo,” Fili said, almost in a whisper. “I’m sorry she shouted at you. She was mean.”

“She was, rather,” Bilbo said. But then he sighed again. “But—no, I suppose she wasn’t,” he said. “She was only doing her best to make sure that your brother does not get any worse. And I can hardly blame her for that, for I want to make sure of the very same thing.”

“But you didn’t make him get worse,” Fili said, and then swallowed in a way that looked rather painful. “I did. I made him get worse.”

Bilbo could not deny this, and was not quite sure what to do instead. At last, he held out a hand and helped Fili down off the stool.

“You did,” he said. “But you didn’t know. Now you do know, and you won’t do it again. And your brother is feeling better now that he is warm, and I don’t think there can be any permanent damage.”

Fili did not look much comforted. “He’s not been awake all day,” he said. “He was better yesterday and now he’s all—asleep.” He hesitated a moment, then, apparently with a great effort of will, held Kili out towards Bilbo. “You should look after him,” he said. “I’m not—I’m doing it wrong.”

“Oh,” Bilbo said. “Oh, no. No, Master Fili, that is certainly not true. And we already know that if I try to take him, it will upset him greatly—we have seen it happen not half an hour ago. No, no, you are much better at looking after him than I am. Indeed, I have been very impressed with your dedication.” And exasperated, he added to himself, but of course did not say it aloud. Instead he shepherded Fili back to the fire, and helped him back into his chair, and then sat down next to him. He stared into the fire, pondering again how he might be able to send a message to the dwarves’ friends, whoever and wherever they might be. But his thoughts were rather disturbed, and he kept returning to Lily’s visit, her anger, and Kili’s terror when Bilbo had tried to take him.

“At least he doesn’t seem to be having bad dreams now,” he murmured, looking over to where Kili was sleeping peacefully, head pillowed on Fili’s shoulder.

Fili, still looking miserable, shook his head. “He’s gone to sleep properly now,” he said. “He’s been sleeping all day.”

“I’m sure it’s helping him to get better,” Bilbo said. “But does he have nightmares often? That’s two in the days you’ve been here.”

Fili nodded. “He gets scared,” he said. “Especially when it’s dark and if he’s on his own.”

“What about you?” Bilbo asked. “Do you get scared, and have bad dreams?”

Fili looked away, staring into the fire. “No,” he said. “I don’t dream about anything.”

“I see.” Bilbo considered a moment. “Well, if you ever do have a bad dream, you can always come and talk to me about it,” he said. “Even if I’m asleep. I wouldn’t want you to be frightened and alone in my hobbit hole.”

Fili turned to look at him, then, staring at him with a look on his face as though he was trying to find the answer to a puzzle. Bilbo looked back, and then, when Fili said nothing, raised his eyebrows.

“Is there something you wanted to say to me, Master Dwarf?” he asked.

“Why are you so nice to us?” Fili asked, and then looked rather like he had not intended to speak his thoughts out loud.

“Well—I don’t think I am so very nice,” Bilbo said.

“You are, though,” Fili said. “You’ve looked after Kili and given us cake and—and you didn’t shout at me and you told that lady you hurt Kili, even though I did it, and you didn’t tell her the truth even when she shouted at you.”

“Hm,” Bilbo said. “Well, as to the latter, I rather think you’ve suffered enough for what was, when all is said and done, just a mistake. You didn’t intend to hurt your brother, now, did you?”

Fili shook his head vehemently, causing Kili to shift and snuffle against his shoulder.

“Well, then,” Bilbo said. “You are already miserable about it, and I didn’t think having an angry hobbit shouting at you would help matters at all.”

“But then she shouted at you instead,” Fili said, eyes starting to look bright in the firelight. “And you didn’t even do anything.”

“Ah, but I am a grown up, and I am perfectly capable of being shouted at without feeling very bad about it at all,” Bilbo said, and smiled to prove his point. “You see? So it was better that she shouted at me, because it didn’t upset me, and it would have upset you.”

Fili looked like he was not quite convinced by this, and Bilbo sighed.

“Why is it so hard for you to believe I might just want to be nice to you?” he asked. “You are two poor lost children and I am not an ogre. Why should I not want to be nice to you?”

Fili sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve. “No-one’s usually nice to us,” he said. “Or—they are, but then—it’s all a lie.”

Bilbo frowned at him. “What do you mean—a lie?” he asked.

Fili swallowed, staring into the fire. He looked as though he was about to speak, but then he did not. And then a second time—but still not result. Bilbo bit his tongue, determined to be patient, and at last—at last, he was rewarded.

“There was a man,” Fili said. “In the woods—a man we met. He was a hunter, he had—he had this deer and he was roasting it over the fire.” He looked up at Bilbo, eyes wide. “We were so hungry,” he said. “I know we shouldn’t have, but we were so hungry and—we’d run out of food and it was so cold, and all the wood was wet so we couldn’t make a fire.” A tear ran down his cheek and he brushed it away. “I said no, I did, but Kili—but he was crying and he couldn’t walk very far because he was so hungry, and I thought—I could smell it, the venison—so we went. We went and talked to him and we asked him for food.”

Bilbo felt suddenly as if he did not want to hear the rest of the story, for he felt sure it would not be a pleasant one. But it was the first time Fili had volunteered anything concrete at all about their past, and so, no matter how painful it was to hear the details of those two lost children, half-starving in the woods, Bilbo did not speak or try to stop him, but simply let him talk.

“He was nice,” Fili said. “He gave us—lots of food, and let us sit by his fire, and then he said—we said we needed to find the place where we were meeting our friends, and he said he knew everything about the woods. He said he would help us find it. And he gave us a blanket, and it was—it was really warm.” Here he paused and wiped away a few more tears. “It was really warm and I thought—he was nice.”

He stopped, then, and Bilbo wondered whether to encourage him or to simply stay silent. But he did not wonder for long, for a moment later, Fili continued his story unprompted.

“We described it—the place, with the mushrooms, and he said he knew where it was. So the next day we started walking there, and sometimes he carried Kili when he was tired. And he gave us more food that night, and Kili started—being Kili again. The man liked talking to him, and he started telling him things—I didn’t think it would be bad. Because I thought the man wouldn’t know and anyway, he was nice. But Kili told him our names and—he shouldn’t have, I know that now. But I didn’t think it was bad, then.”

“And then—it was two days, or three, and then I thought—we should have been going north. But we weren’t, because the sun wasn’t in the right place. We were going—south, I think, mostly south. And I said—I told him I thought we should be going north, because I think we went south before, and east, so we should go north and west to get back. But he said he knew where the place was, because we’d described it and he’d been there and he knew where it was. And he said I should just not worry about it. But—I did worry. And I asked him again the next day and he said—he said we were going the right way and if I was so sure about which way to go, maybe we didn’t need his help.” He turned to Bilbo, then, eyes huge. “And I know—I know I should have said we didn’t,” he said. “I did say it, and we were going to leave, but he—he had food, he killed another deer and there was food, and if we left I didn’t know where we were going to get food from. And he said we were foolish and I didn’t know how to look after Kili, if I was going to leave and let him starve just because I thought I knew the right way.” He was crying in earnest, now, tears sliding down his face, and Bilbo reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” he murmured. “Go on.”

Fili snuffled a little and rubbed at his eyes. “We stayed with him another night,” he said. “And then I woke up and Kili was screaming. I woke up and he’d packed all his things away and he’d—he had Kili, he’d picked him up and he was taking him away.” He looked suddenly terrified at the memory, pulling Kili close to his chest. “He was taking him,” he whispered. “He would have taken him and I would have woken up all on my own.”

Bilbo felt a thrill of fear in his own heart, even though it was clear that the worst had not occurred. “What happened?” he asked.

Fili drew himself up, then, looking suddenly fiercely proud. “Kili bit him,” he said. “I saw it later. There was blood and—he bit him really hard.” He pressed a kiss to the top of Kili’s head. “And then—the man hit him. He hit him and then he dropped him and hit him again, really hard.” The tears were gone, now replaced by a furious expression. “He hit him three times,” he said. “He was dizzy all day.”

Bilbo swallowed. “How did you get away?” he asked.

“I took his knife,” Fili said. “He had one in his boot. And he was looking at Kili, so I took it, and I cut him on the back of the knee, so he would fall over. And when he fell over, I stabbed him.”

Bilbo felt his heart suddenly stumble in his chest. “You—you stabbed him?” he whispered.

Fili nodded, and he did not seem the least upset, now—only cold and vicious. “I stabbed him in the eye, because it’s soft,” he said. “And then I stabbed him in the other eye so I could be sure he was dead.”

Bilbo’s mouth felt very dry, and he remembered the times he had been confronted by Fili, furious and wielding his sword. “He was dead?” he said.

Fili nodded. “We took all the food and the blanket,” he said. “And I took his sword—he had a short one and a long one, and I took the short one. And then we tried to find the place, but—I didn’t know where we were. We’d gone so far south and I tried to go north, but the food ran out and it got really cold and then Kili started getting ill.” He swallowed, suddenly not a vengeful killer any more, but just a small, lost dwarf child. “And then we found you,” he said. “And you’re really nice, and you helped Kili so he didn’t die.”

“I did, I suppose,” Bilbo said, still feeling rather taken aback. He rose to his feet. “I will make us some tea.”

Once in the kitchen, he closed the door carefully, then stood, hands clasped, staring at the pantry. In there, on the high shelf, was the short sword that Fili had stolen from the man that he had killed. The sword which he had used to threaten Bilbo more than once. The number of times he had accused Bilbo of taking or hurting his brother—Bilbo felt quite weak at the knees at the thought of what might have happened to him if he had not managed to convince Fili otherwise. To think, all this time he’d thought he was simply giving a home to two harmless children, when one of them was so dangerous!

He sat down on the bench with a bump, feeling a little faint. “Oh dear,” he murmured to himself. But after he had sat there for some few minutes, he rose, and made the tea, and drank some, and after that he sat again, considering. Certainly, the news that Fili had killed a man in the woods was quite disturbing—and that he should relate that part of the story so coldly. But then—but then. Bilbo wondered what he would do, if he woke to find a strange man stealing one of the dwarves away. What ought he to do? And the answer, with no possible other to be had: stop him. Do anything necessary to stop him. The only question was if Bilbo would have the strength of heart and hand to do it, not in whether it was the right thing to do. And that made Bilbo wonder indeed, for Fili was certainly a child, and a young one, and that he had known how to kill a man much taller and stronger than him—where had he learned such a thing?

Bilbo was not entirely sure he wanted to know. But now he began to understand a few other things as well—some of the things Kili had cried out in his sleep, some of Fili’s preoccupation with being within sight of his brother, the determination not to tell Bilbo anything at all about who they were and where they came from. Although this last was still a puzzle—why should Fili think that knowing their names had led the man to do what he did? Bilbo hardly thought the names of two small dwarves could mean anything to a hunter in the woods, any more than they did to Bilbo himself. Indeed, he thought it much more likely that the man had always planned to do something nefarious with both of them, and once Fili had started to prove difficult had decided to cut his losses and just take one. Perhaps Bilbo was a respectable hobbit who rarely stirred far from home, but even in Hobbiton there were sometimes rumours of the evil that was done to children by unscrupulous folk.

This thought, coupled with the image of the shadowy, faceless man in the woods carrying Kili away in the dark, caused Bilbo’s stomach to turn, and he drank some more of his tea and found that his shock and fear at the revelation of what Fili had done had been almost entirely replaced by anger at thinking about what that man had done—and planned to do. Kili, that cheerful soul, hit so hard that he was dizzy all the next day? Who could do such a thing?

“Well, whoever he was, he won’t be doing it any more,” Bilbo said to himself. And with that, he did his best to put the whole matter out of his mind. After all, although it explained some things, it told him very little more about how the dwarves had come to be lost in the woods in the first place, and it certainly didn’t help him with the problem of how to send a message to their friends.

“All in good time,” Bilbo said, and poured some fresh tea for himself, and some for Kili and Fili. When he returned to the living room, he found Fili staring into the fire, with an expression on his face as though he was thinking of something rather horrible. Kili, too, was awake, sleepy-eyed and dazed-looking.

“Tea,” Bilbo said, putting it down at Fili’s elbow. “And now, I think we have had enough excitement for a little while, don’t you? Why don’t we do something else?”

Having said this, he was at a loss for what they might do, for Kili clearly was not in any fit state to do anything, and Fili equally clearly would not consent to any activity that involved him being out of physical contact with his brother. But after a moment, he hit on an idea.

“Ah!” he said. “Would you like me to read you a story?”

Fili sat up at that, and even Kili opened his eyes a little wider. Bilbo laughed at the sight of them.

“That’s a yes, then, is it?” he said, and got to his feet, examining the books on his shelf until he hit on one that might be suitable. “Ah, yes, here we are.”

He sat down and opened the book to one of his favourite stories—one his parents had been used to read to him when he was a child no larger than the dwarves that sat beside him now. He looked at them over the top of the book, and smiled to see that Fili was watching him with rapt attention, and Kili was clearly doing his best to keep his eyes open.

“You like stories, do you?” he asked, and laughed at Fili’s eager nod. “Well, it’s lucky I have so many books, then. They should keep us all busy until spring.”

And he cleared his throat and began to read.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Bilbo awoke early, and lay awhile watching the silvery light that fell through a gap in his curtains. He knew what it must mean—more snow—but he was loath to rouse himself from his bed and confirm it. Snow was pretty enough—beautiful, really—but he was concerned for the health of his young guests, and even though it would not be so very difficult to keep the hobbit hole warm, regardless of the weather outside, still, he found himself worrying. Worrying, and worrying some more, until he had worked himself up into a dreadful state of anxiety, quite unsuitable for a hobbit lying in a warm bed on a crisp winter’s morning.

But after he had worried for some time, his natural hobbitish tendency towards common sense came to the fore, and he shook his head at himself and gave himself a good talking to. “Much good may it do you to fret about snow that is in no danger of coming inside, Bilbo Baggins,” he said to himself. “What you should be fretting over is how to get those two poor creatures back to whoever it is they belong to.”

And he found he rather agreed with himself on that score, and so he set himself to thinking about that, instead. At first, he simply thought and thought, and found that nothing useful came of it except the beginnings of a headache from frowning too much. But, when he was on the verge of giving up entirely, the tiniest thread of an idea glimmered in his mind, and Bilbo—who felt as though it was weeks if not months since he had seen such a precious thing—seized on it, and followed it, and lay for who can say how long staring at nothing as he allowed it to take shape in his mind. And once it had, he sat up, suddenly sure he knew how to solve the problem. Which just goes to show the value of choosing the right thing to worry about.

Bilbo got up, and went to light the fires in the kitchen and living room. Then he went to look in on the dwarves, and found them still in bed. Fili was asleep, but Kili was awake, blinking out at Bilbo from the cocoon of blankets he had wrapped himself in. The fire was roaring merrily, and Bilbo thought that one or other of them—Fili, certainly Fili—must have stoked it up at some time not so very long ago.

“Good morning,” he murmured, smiling at Kili. “Are you feeling better?”

“Yes,” Kili whispered loudly. “It’s nice now.”

Bilbo was not quite sure what that meant, but he went and sat next to the bed and inspected Kili carefully. He looked rather rosy-cheeked, but it was warm in the room, and he was well wrapped up, so perhaps he was only a little overheated. His breathing seemed easy and did not catch at the end as it had the day before, and Bilbo decided he was satisfied. In his inspection, he noticed the very top of the head of Kili’s doll peeking out from under the blankets, and he chuckled.

“She’s helping to keep you warm, I see,” he said. “What’s her name?”

Kili frowned as if he hadn’t considered this question before. “Aud,” he said at last.

“Aud?” Bilbo repeated. “What an odd name.” Privately, he thought it sounded rather harsh and warlike for a little rag doll, and if he had been asked he would have guessed it was a name for a man, not a woman—or a doll who was nominally female, rather. But then it occurred to him that there might be a reason that Kili had chosen this name. “Is it your mother’s name?” he asked.

Kili looked incredulous. “No,” he whispered. “My mama’s name is Mama.”

Bilbo could not help but smile at this, even though it was not quite what he was looking for. But a moment later, he realised that what he was doing—trying to take advantage of Kili’s youth and trusting nature to obtain information from him—was exactly what Fili was afraid of, and why he had banned Kili from speaking to him in the first place. With this realisation came a feeling of guilt, and he resolved not to try such a thing again.

“Well,” he said instead, “would you like some breakfast?” At Kili’s eager nod, he chuckled again and helped the little dwarf disentangle himself enough from the blankets that he could get off the bed. But as soon as he moved to do so, Fili started beside him, sitting sharply upright and grabbing at Kili’s arm.

“Don’t!” he said, a note of sheer panic in his voice.

Bilbo stepped back from the bedside immediately, for he had no desire for Fili, in his half-awake state, to mistake him for the man in the woods. But Kili shuffled closer to Fili and took hold of Fili’s head with his free hand, turning it until they were face to face. Then he patted Fili’s cheek.

“Mr Bilbo’s making breakfast,” he said.

Fili stared at him, eyes wide and chest heaving a little, and Bilbo thought of how he had claimed the day before that he never had nightmares. Now, pale and dishevelled, with deep shadows under his eyes, it seemed almost laughable that he might say such a thing. But, nightmare or not, he was awake now, and he pressed his forehead against Kili’s and closed his eyes a moment, visibly pulling himself together.

After a moment of this, Kili patted his cheek again.

“He’s making breakfast,” he said. “I’m hungry.”

Fili gulped in a breath and sat back, though he kept one hand on Kili’s arm. “All right,” he said, voice wavering a little. “All right. We’ll have breakfast.” He climbed over his brother and got down from the bed, then made to pick Kili up. But Kili squirmed and wriggled in his arms.

“I want to walk,” he said.

Fili clutched him tighter. “You’re not well enough,” he said. But a moment later, Kili’s squirming grew too much for his brother’s strength, and he was forced to let go. Luckily, Kili had not far to fall, but unluckily, he was still rather involved in his blankets, and so he was not able to land on his feet, but rather fell in a heap. Bilbo’s stomach lurched a little—the child was so small, and still unwell, and who knew how easily he might be hurt?—but Kili merely struggled to his feet with his brother’s help, then stuck his tongue out at said brother and marched over to Bilbo’s side, taking his hand.

“Fili’s mean,” he whispered loudly.

Fili looked stricken at this pronouncement, and Bilbo felt the unfairness of it rather sharply himself, even though it was not directed at him.

“Don’t be foolish,” he said to Kili. “It was your fault you fell, as much as his.” He took his hand from Kili’s and pushed him back in Fili’s direction. To his surprise, far from being stubborn or angry, Kili went back over to Fili’s side and took hold of his hand, instead.

“Mean,” he said, but didn’t sound particularly unhappy about it.

Bilbo sighed. It was clear that, despite his few days of experience, he still did not understand children at all.

“Come on, then,” he said. “Let’s go and have breakfast.”

****

Bilbo waited until after breakfast to discuss his plan with Fili. By then, the young dwarf was looking, if not blooming with health, at least a little less pale and unhappy, though the shadows under his eyes persisted, and Bilbo wondered if he had slept at all the night before. Kili had fallen silent again, after Fili remembered about halfway through their meal that he wasn’t supposed to be speaking in Bilbo’s presence, and so it was to Fili alone that Bilbo directed his thoughts.

“I wonder,” he said. “Do you, Master Fili, know of anyone who you trust, who is a friend to the ones you are supposed to meet, but perhaps is not among their number?”

Fili frowned at him. “What do you mean?” he asked, licking some egg yolk from the back of his hand, where it had unaccountably adhered itself during breakfast.

“I mean—” Bilbo said, and thought how he might be clearer. “I mean that you are afraid that someone might be watching for letters to your friends, are you not?”

Fili looked as though he did not really wish to discuss his friends at all, but he nodded slowly nonetheless.

“But if anyone is watching for such letters, well, it must be a great deal of trouble for them, since they cannot know when or from which direction such a letter might proceed. They surely cannot have either the time or the inclination to watch for letters to every single person who might be well-disposed towards your friends. So—is there anyone that you think is not in danger of having their letters read, but is nonetheless loyal to your friends and could tell them of the contents of a letter, if it came to them?”

Fili did not say anything in response to this, but although he was still frowning, now it seemed more a frown of contemplation than of confusion. Still, the poor lad looked exhausted, and when, at last, he shook his head, Bilbo found himself hardly surprised.

“I can’t think of anyone,” he muttered.

“Well, you are very tired,” Bilbo said. “But now I have asked you the question, why do you not keep considering it? Perhaps something will come to your mind.”

But Kili, who had been sitting by playing quietly with his doll, turned then and tugged at Fili’s sleeve.

“What about Mr Bofur?” he asked, in the loud whisper that he seemed to think was more or less the same thing as not talking at all. “He’s nice, and he knows u—”

He stopped abruptly, for Fili had clapped his hand over his mouth.

“Sh,” Fili said furiously. “You’re not supposed to talk.”

Kili stared at his brother, eyes wide over the top of Fili’s hand. He shrank down a little in his seat, and when Fili took his hand away, Kili hunched his shoulders even more, picking disconsolately at his blanket. Fili’s expression slipped from anger into sympathy, and he patted Kili on the shoulder and made a few short, quick signs with his hands. Bilbo, of course, could not interpret these, but they might have been some kind of apology, for Kili immediately brightened and even smiled a little.

Fili turned next to Bilbo, and he had a look on his face that was partly worry, but also partly something that Bilbo had not seen before. A sort of assessing look, so that Bilbo felt suddenly as if he was being judged.

“If you’re concerned that I might mention that name Kili said to anyone, I can assure you I will not,” Bilbo said. “In fact, I have already forgotten it—you dwarves do have such queer names.”

But the assessing look did not leave Fili’s eyes, and he sat like that for what, in Bilbo’s mind, was an uncomfortably long time, before seeming to make a decision. He draw a deep breath, then pulled Kili close in beside him, wrapping an arm around his shoulders without taking his eyes from Bilbo.

“Mr Bofur,” he said. “Mr Bofur would help us. He’s nice, and he knows our friends.”

Bilbo, who had been preparing himself to find new ways to assure Fili of his trustworthiness, found himself momentarily out of balance. “Mr Bofur?” he said, and then, understanding what was being offered, “Oh! Yes, very good, oh, very good. Mr Bofur—then we must write to Mr Bofur.”

Kili waved a hand vigorously, and, once he had caught Bilbo’s attention, pointed frantically to himself. Bilbo smiled at him.

“Yes, you are very clever,” he said. “What a good idea of yours.”

Kili beamed, and Fili turned and whispered something to him that made him beam even more, until it seemed as if his smile was larger than his face. Bilbo chuckled, but Fili turned back to look at him, and on his face, in contrast, there was no trace of a smile.

“You can’t just write to him,” he said. “I don’t think anyone will read his letters, but you can’t. Just in case.”

Bilbo’s buoyant mood sank a little, but he had progressed so far in such a very short time that his spirits could not be dampened for long. “I see,” he said. “Well—we shall have to write in such a way that no-one will suspect our true purpose, then, shan’t we?”

Fili frowned and nodded. “I don’t know how,” he said.

Bilbo, of course, did not know how either, but he had learned in the last few days that pretending that you knew what to do was in many ways more important than actually knowing what to do—and in some cases the one even led to the other. “It is very simple,” he said, by way of giving himself time to think. “But you will have to tell me some things about this Mr Bofur so that I can find out how to write to him in the proper way.”

Fili stared at him with that assessing look again. “He makes toys,” he said at last. It seemed he wasn’t going to say anything else, but Kili tugged insistently on his sleeve and whispered something to him, and Fili nodded thoughtfully. “And he’s got a funny hat,” he said.

“I see,” Bilbo said, wondering if he could make anything of that. “And—has he ever made any toys for you? For either of you?”

Kili nodded eagerly at him and made a series of incomprehensible gestures. Fili nodded too, though without such enthusiasm as his brother.

“He made me an eagle and Kili a raven,” he said. “Their wings flap and they look real.” A shadow crossed his face. “I don’t know what happened to them,” he muttered, pulling Kili closer in to his side. Kili, for his part, hugged his doll close, stroking its woollen hair.

“Hm,” Bilbo said. “Hm, well—well, yes, I think—yes, I think that might be possible, then. But I will have to think about it for a while. In the meantime, why don’t you two lads go and play with your toys in the living room? I’ll stoke up the fire.”

Stoke up the fire he did, and then set about cleaning the kitchen, all the while thinking about Mr Bofur and his toys. As he cleaned, and as he thought, the beginnings of a plan began to take shape in his mind, and after a while, he sat down with a pen and paper to think it out more carefully. But barely had he made the first mark on the page, when there was a crash from the living room that caused his stomach to lurch unpleasantly.

Bilbo jumped to his feet, hurrying to living room door, only to find a scene of some chaos to greet him. Cushions were strewn about the floor, as were the toys that Rose had given to the dwarves. In one corner stood Kili, wide-eyed and worried-looking, his doll clutched in one hand. Beside him lay what had once been a rather ugly vase given to Bilbo by one of his least favourite cousins—now in pieces on the floor.

“What on earth is going on in here?” Bilbo asked, rather more sharply than perhaps was warranted, for his heart was still thundering from the surprise the crash had caused to him.

At the sound of his words, Fili, who was standing some distance from his brother, started and turned to look at him, then all but ran across the room, placing himself between Bilbo and Kili.

“I did it,” he said. “I broke it. I’m sorry, it was an accident.”

Bilbo frowned at him. “But you weren’t even standing near it,” he said. “How could you have broken it?”

“I—” Fili said, glancing around himself as if for inspiration. “I—threw something. That—that thing.” He pointed at a small wooden pony that lay on its side a few feet away.

Bilbo opened his mouth to enquire why on earth Fili was throwing his toys around, and then took in the sight before him. Both children were staring at him, wide-eyed, Kili cowering behind his brother, Fili with his arms held out a little from his sides as if to make himself seem larger than he was. And Bilbo, though he still did not quite understand, swallowed his question and considered.

“Come here,” he said at last.

Fili’s shoulders stiffened a little, and he swallowed. “No,” he whispered. Kili was clutching at his brother’s shirt, now, peering at Bilbo and glancing every now and then at the door, and Fili put one hand behind him, where it was immediately seized by Kili.

Bilbo sat down on the doorsill. He wasn’t quite sure why he did it, except he suddenly felt very tall, and also rather tired. “Well,” he said, after a long pause. “I know you didn’t break the vase, Master Fili. But I understand why you told me you did—or, I think I understand some of it, anyway. And I want you to know—both of you—that I am not angry and I am not going to hurt you. So you don’t need to be scared. Although you should be apologetic, I think. Yes, I think that would be appropriate.”

Fili stared at him like he was speaking in tongues. “You’re not angry?” he asked.

“No,” Bilbo said. “A little annoyed, maybe. You’ve made rather a mess.”

Fili glanced behind him at the broken pieces of vase on the floor. “I’ll—I can clean it up,” he said. Kili seemed to take this to heart, and reached out for one of the pieces, only for Fili to grab his hand and pull it back. “Don’t touch that, it’s sharp,” he said.

“Quite,” said Bilbo. “I would rather neither of you do yourselves any further injury. I’ll fetch a dustpan and brush.” But before he did this, he frowned around at the rest of the room. “But what on earth were you doing to cause such a mess?” he asked.

Both dwarves now stared at him with twin expressions of confusion. “We were playing,” Fili said at last, sounding a little sullen. “You said we should play, so we did. I’m sorry about the vase.”

Bilbo looked around at the floor, strewn with cushions and toys. He could not for the life of him understand what kind of game it could have been. But, given the apparent chaos it had caused, he supposed it was lucky that nothing had been broken sooner. “Don’t you know any nice, quiet games?” he asked. “Games where you just sit quietly, perhaps?”

Kili made a most remarkable face at this. “That’s boring,” he whispered, and Fili glanced back.

“Sh,” he said. “Mr Bilbo wants us to be quiet. He wants you to be quiet, especially.”

“Well, I did not say that,” Bilbo said, feeling rather guilty at the miserable look that immediately came over Kili’s face. “But I—well, I would rather you did not break anything else, I suppose. And that neither of you hurts yourself, or gets ill.” He tried to think of other things that he would prefer they did not do, but other than make a lot of noise and mess, he found himself without ideas.

“We’ll be quiet,” Fili said. “We can be quiet, we’ll just sit—we’ll sit here.” He went and sat on a large cushion, towing his brother behind him, and pulling him down to sit next to him. “Sh,” he said sharply when Kili started saying something. “Mr Bilbo said to be quiet.” But the sharpness of his words was belied by the way he put his arm round his brother’s shoulders and pulled him in close to his side.

“Hm,” Bilbo said. Even though he really did truly want the dwarves to be quiet and preferably to sit still and not break anything else, he felt really quite guilty by now for these desires. Though, really, surely it was reasonable to ask them to not cause him any more annoyance? They were guests, after all, and uninvited ones, at that.

But no. Somewhere in the back of Bilbo’s mind he heard his mother’s voice, and very disapproving it was indeed. And the two dwarves looked so very small and forlorn, sitting as still as they could, huddled up together on the cushion, that Bilbo could not countenance it, even if it was convenient for him.

“Well, I suppose there is no need for you to be completely quiet,” he said. “But if you could try not to break anything else—no more throwing things, certainly! Well—I suppose—well, you are children, after all, and high-spirited and so on...” He shook his head. “Of course you may play. I should not like you to sit there all day and be bored.”

Fili looked relieved at this, but Kili bounced to his feet, extricating himself from his brother’s grasp and pattering across the room. Fili called his name, but Kili ignored him, climbing up onto Bilbo’s lap and putting his arms around his neck.

“I told Fili you were nice,” he whispered loudly. “He didn’t believe me at first, but he does now. And I broke the vase, but I’m sorry, and I know you won’t hit me because you’re nice.”

Bilbo, rather surprised by this, put his own arms around Kili, almost out of habit—for he had found himself hugging and cuddling the child many times now over the last week, and he could not deny that there was something quite comforting about it. But thinking through his words, he found himself not entirely comforted. He knew that the man in the woods had hit Kili, but it almost sounded as if that was not the only occasion on which something similar had happened—else why should Kili have even expected it, for something as trivial as making a mess and breaking a vase?

“No, I certainly will not hit you,” he said, frowning at Fili over Kili’s shoulder. “You need never fear that. But do be a little more careful, master dwarf.”

“Yes,” Kili said letting go of Bilbo and grinning at him from far too close. “I’ll be careful, I promise.”

From the worried look on Fili’s face, Bilbo rather suspected that Kili was not particularly good at keeping promises of this type, and he began to make plans for locking all of his more breakable possessions in the pantry. After all, there was no need for them to be out in the open and preventing the children from enjoying themselves.

He stood up, picking Kili up with him almost without thinking about it and swinging round towards the kitchen. In his arms, Kili giggled and put his own arms out like he was flying, and when Bilbo tried to put him down, he shook his head and clung on.

“Again!” he whispered.

Bilbo raised his eyebrows, then swung around again, eliciting another delighted giggle. It was remarkable how quickly the child could shift in mood—but what was perhaps even more remarkable was the warmth Bilbo felt in his heart at hearing him laugh. Such a small thing—in fact it ought to have been quite annoying, for Kili’s giggle was high-pitched and a little piercing—and yet, he found himself swinging around again, just to hear it one more time.

Kili clapped his hands in glee, then managed somehow to hang upside-down from Bilbo’s arms—the child was so flexible, it was almost as though he had no bones in his body. “Swing me, Mr Bilbo!” he cried, not caring now to keep his voice down, and Bilbo obliged, feeling rather foolish and yet at the same time rather happy. He swung around and around, until he was in danger of getting dizzy, and all the while Kili laughed, apparently having an endless appetite for this game. At last, he paused, partly because his head was spinning, and partly because he became aware that Fili was standing just out of reach of Kili’s flailing arms, a rather wistful expression on his face. Bilbo paused, swinging Kili up again.

“Would you like to play, too?” he asked.

Fili said nothing in reply, nor did he nod or shake his head. Instead, he stood very still indeed, and looked as though he could not decide what he wanted to do.

Kili, though, suffered from no such indecision. He called out something in their own language, and then somehow contrived to wriggle around in Bilbo’s arms until he was hanging upside-down with his legs around Bilbo’s neck, holding out a hand to his brother. Fili made a valiant effort to smother his answering grin, but did not quite succeed, and a moment later he had stepped forward and taken Kili’s hand. Kili, without warning, flung himself forward, letting go of Bilbo and landing heavily on Fili, who stumbled backwards, so that they both landed in a tangle of limbs on one of the cushions, laughing breathlessly. Bilbo began to wonder if, indeed, that was why there were cushions scattered around the room with such abandon. He also began to wonder if he would make it out of this particular game with all his joints intact.

At that moment, there was a knock at the door, which caused some relief to Bilbo. “Don’t break anything,” he said to the dwarves, and hurried to answer it.

On the other side, he found something of a surprise: young Hamfast Gamgee, the nephew of his gardener, who came sometimes to help his uncle in the warmer months.

“Hello, Mr Bilbo,” Ham said. “I’ve come to see if you’re wanting your garden done?”

Bilbo stared at him in surprise. “My garden is under a foot of snow,” he said. “What is it you think you can do to it?”

Ham looked rather as though he hadn’t anticipated this answer, and he looked around him at the snow and nodded.

“Ah, that it is,” he said, then turned back towards Bilbo, craning his neck as if he was trying to see past him. Bilbo frowned at this odd behaviour, but a thump from the living room followed by a muffled squeak led swiftly to his enlightenment.

“So it’s true, then?” young Ham asked, standing on tiptoes to peer over Bilbo’s shoulder. “You’ve adopted some little dwarves?”

“No, I have not adopted anyone!” Bilbo said. “How many times must I repeat it?” But then he realised what Ham had said, and felt suddenly worried. “But how did you hear about the dwarves?”

“Oh, everyone’s heard, Mr Bilbo,” Ham said blithely. “Only what with it being so cold and all no-one’s been up to come and look at them yet. But I’ve never seen a dwarf before, so I thought I would come and look.”

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said. He thought it likely that Fili would not be at all happy to know that everyone in Hobbiton was talking about them, and what was more, he certainly did not want the entire village thinking he had adopted the two dwarves. The very thought! But he supposed he should not be surprised, for Rose was an inveterate gossip, and rare indeed was the secret that could be kept from a nosy hobbit (and most hobbits were nosy, in their own way).

“Can I look at them, then, Mr Bilbo?” Ham asked, trying again to peer past Bilbo. “Only I have never seen one, and I’d like to, you know.”

“They are not pets, Ham Gamgee,” Bilbo said, beginning to feel rather annoyed.

“Oh, no, of course not,” Ham said. “I heard they were very little, though. Quite tiny, they’re saying.”

“No smaller than hobbit children, certainly,” Bilbo said, but an idea was dawning on him. Ham was a good-hearted lad, if a trifle thoughtless at times, and what was perhaps more important, he was young, and therefore energetic and with much less fear of destroying his joints than Bilbo had. “Well—what if you were to look after them for me for a little while? I have some things I must do, but I have found it is not entirely safe to leave them on their own.”

Ham nodded eagerly. “Indeed I will,” he said. “You just show em to me, Mr Bilbo, and I’ll look after them for as long as you like.”

Bilbo laughed. “Don’t be so hasty!” he said. “But here, you might as well come in.” And he let Ham pass him, and closed the door against the cold before leading him to the living room. There, he found neither dwarf in evidence, and he sighed.

“This is my friend, Mr Ham Gamgee,” he said loudly to no-one in particular. “He’s very nice, and he has sweets with him.” For Ham had rather a sweet tooth and was known to generally keep it well supplied from his capacious pockets.

This announcement led to a whispered conversation from behind an armchair in the corner, and Bilbo shook his head and sighed.

“I’ll be in the kitchen,” he said to Ham. “Don’t let them break anything.”

And he went to the kitchen and closed the door firmly behind him.

And then, after a moment’s thought, opened it just a crack.

****

Bilbo’s experiment with Ham Gamgee was remarkably successful—so much so, that Bilbo was able to write the whole of his letter without any further interruptions—he even managed to largely ignore the noises from the living room, once he had ascertained that none of them were particularly alarming. Once he had finished, he went to the living room, to find that Ham was shuffling around on his hands and knees, with Kili poised on the arm of a chair, looking as though he was about to pounce on him. Fili was watching from another chair, and Bilbo motioned to him.

“Master dwarf,” he said. “If I might have a word?”

Fili considered for a moment, staring at Ham with a thoughtful expression on his face. Then he nodded and followed Bilbo into the kitchen, though this time the door was left fully open.

“Let me read you this letter I have written to your Mr Bofur,” Bilbo said. Fili immediately sat on the bench with an expectant expression, and Bilbo cleared his throat.

Dear Mr Bofur,” he read, “My name is Mr Bilbo Baggins of Hobbiton in the Shire. I had the good fortune some time ago of meeting a Man in Bree who sold me a marvellous toy for my oldest son. This toy is an eagle, very lifelike indeed. Well, now my younger son is old enough, I would like a toy for him, too, of a similar kind, but having gone again to Bree, this Man tells me that the work he sold me was not his own, but acquired at some time previous from a dwarf by the name of Bofur. After some efforts, I have managed to find your address, and I am writing to ask you if you will make another toy for my son—he has asked especially for a raven. If you are willing, please write to me so that we can discuss this matter further. Yours sincerely, Bilbo Baggins.” He paused, inspecting Fili over the top of the paper. “Well, now, that is as subtle as I can make it. And do you think he will understand?”

Fili chewed his lip. “It’s got the toys in it,” he said. “So he’ll know it’s about us. Won’t he? And then you’ve said—you’ve said where you live, so he’ll know to come and get us.” He looked up at Bilbo with a pleading expression. “Won’t he? Someone will come and get us, won’t they?”

Bilbo set down his letter. “Of course they will,” he said, sounding much more confident than he felt. “But then do I have your permission to send the letter? I will not send it unless you want me to.”

Fili hesitated, then nodded. “Yes, please, Mr Bilbo,” he said.

“Well, I will have to know where he lives, first, so I can address it,” Bilbo said. This caused another bout of hesitation in Fili, but at last he nodded again.

“In—in Ered Luin,” he said. “But that’s not—our friends don’t live there, but Mr Bofur does. And then he—comes to visit our friends sometimes. In the different place where they live. With toys.”

Bilbo raised his eyebrows at this disjointed explanation, but he closed the letter up and wrote For Mr Bofur, a Dwarf, in Ered Luin.

“There,” he said. “Now, let’s go and see if your brother has managed to wear Ham out yet.”

He stood up and led Fili back through to the living room. There, he found Ham sitting in an armchair, looking quite exhausted. Beside him, in another armchair, Kili lay curled up in a bundle of cushions and blankets, fast asleep.

“You’ve worn him out, have you?” Bilbo asked with a smile.

“I think it’s the other way around, Mr Bilbo,” Ham said, passing a hand across his brow. “I was like to faint for a while there. Then he just went and fell asleep. Out like a light, he was.”

“He’s been rather ill,” Bilbo said, watching as Fili fussed with Kili’s blankets, tucking them more tightly around him. “Now, then, Ham, is your father going to Bree again soon?” For Hamfast’s father travelled abroad more often than most hobbits, selling the rope that he made for a living.

“Oh, aye, next few days, I shouldn’t wonder,” Ham said. “Soon as the snow melts, at any rate. Got something to send, have you?”

“Indeed I have,” Bilbo said, holding out his letter. Ham examined it, then glanced at the dwarves.

“For their people, is it?” he asked.

“Oh, no, just a coincidence,” Bilbo said carefully. “And Ham—I would appreciate it if you could ask people to be a little discreet about these dwarves. They have had a very difficult time of it, and they are quite frightened of strangers.”

“Are they, now,” Ham said, casting a doubtful glance at Kili. “Well, if you say so, Mr Bilbo. But now, I’ll be off, then. I think I need a bit of a lie down.”

And he put Bilbo’s letter in his pocket, and said his goodbyes. Watching him go, Bilbo worried about the fact that apparently, everyone in Hobbiton now knew about the dwarves. Fili certainly would not be pleased about that, and even Bilbo found himself rather uncomfortable with the idea, although he could not quite say why. But there—it was done, and could not be helped now.

“Tea time, I think,” he said to Fili, and went to set the kettle to boil. But as he passed the map on the wall, he paused and peered at it a moment. Ered Luin—the Blue Mountains. Not so very far away, even with winter travelling conditions. Was that where the dwarves had come from, or was it, as Fili claimed, simply where the mysterious Mr Bofur lived?

Bilbo supposed he would find out soon enough, assuming Mr Bofur answered his letter. And in the meantime, he went to make the tea.

Chapter Text

After that, things were rather quiet for the next little while. Well, perhaps quiet was not quite the right word—certainly now that Kili was feeling better and Fili was not so strict with him, the hobbit hole was witness to more shrieks, giggles, and other unnecessarily noisy happenings than it had seen in many a long year. But, aside from the occasional incident, nothing very noteworthy happened—and even those things that did were, to Bilbo’s relief, not nearly so heart-stopping as some of the events of the previous days.

Kili was better for the most part, but still suffered from the occasional attack of breathlessness, which always left him listless and exhausted until he had managed to sleep for a few hours. Bilbo applied Lily’s medicine and steam-cure faithfully every few hours, no matter how much recovered the child seemed, for the memory of the day when he had almost died in Bilbo’s arms was never far from his mind. Fili, too, kept a close watch on his brother, and learned quickly the signs of an impending attack, keeping their games a little subdued whenever he could. And of course, the house was kept warm at all times, and Kili was not permitted to go outside, even when he climbed on the windowsills and stared longingly out with his nose pressed to the glass.

For all that, though, there were a few things of note. The first occurred a few days after Bilbo had sent Ham Gamgee off with his letter to Mr Bofur. Ham had visited a time or two since, and seemed fascinated by the little dwarves, and Bilbo was not above taking full advantage of that fact and asking Ham to look after them for him whenever he came. On these occasions, Ham played cheerfully with Kili, and Fili sat quietly and watched them both, which Bilbo felt rather sad about, but could not think of a way to remedy. Rose and Lily came every day as well, sometimes together, sometimes apart, and Rose brought very useful things with her—the most useful being a collection of clothes that her own children had grown out of, which she sat and altered so they would fit the dwarves better right there in Bilbo’s living room. Such a little circle they made that Bilbo had almost forgotten his concerns about gossip until one day he opened the door and found a troupe of hobbit children standing on the other side, all well wrapped-up against the cold.

“Yes?” he said, frowning at them. “Hello?”

“Hello Mr Bilbo!” cried the foremost child, whom Bilbo could not even recognise under all the scarves it was wrapped in. “We’ve come to look at your dwarves!”

Bilbo stared at her—he was reasonably sure it was a her—in consternation.

“Look at them?” he said. “What do you mean?”

“My papa says they have enormous ears,” piped up another voice from further back. “Can we see, Mr Bilbo?”

“I want to see the big ears!” another child agreed.

Bilbo, beginning to understand now, suddenly found himself extremely annoyed. He drew himself up, folding his arms across his chest.

“No, you certainly may not,” he said. “The dwarves are my guests, and they are not animals to be stared at and gossiped about. You should all go home and tell your parents not to put their noses into other people’s business.”

And he closed the door sharply, and fumed at it for a short while before going to find a cup of tea.

Later, though, once he began to feel a little calmer, he understood that there was nothing that could be done to stop hobbits gossiping. The news about the dwarves was clearly well-known in Hobbiton, even though neither of them had stirred a single step outside since they arrived, with the exception of their aborted attempt to run away. The cat was well and truly out of the bag, and there was no way to change that now. Nonetheless, it made him very nervous indeed to think that all the hobbits in Hobbiton were talking about the little dwarves, although he could not quite pinpoint the source of his unease.

It took Bilbo some time to decide what to do about this problem of his; he thought about it all day, whenever he was not engaged in something that required his full attention (such things usually involving Kili). And by the time he woke up the next morning, he had seized on a plan. He enlisted Rose and Hamfast to help him, and spent all that day rather anxious about the whole thing, until at last evening came, the dwarves were put to bed, and the first knock came on his door.

“Come in, come in,” Bilbo said to Rory Brandybuck and his wife Gilda, who were standing on the other side. “Sit down and I will get you some tea.”

Rory and Gilda came in happily enough, dusting the snow from their shoulders—for it was snowing again, a fine, light sprinkling—and looking around themselves curiously. Bilbo was sure he knew what they were looking for, but they were to be disappointed, for both dwarves were firmly ensconced in their bed, fast asleep. He ushered his two guests into the living room, and was about to go and fetch them tea and cake, only to be interrupted in this action by the sound of another knock on the door. Hastening to answer, he found Rufus and Asphodel Burrows on the other side.

“Come in,” he said. “I’m just about to serve tea.”

And there came a knock at the door.

And so it went, for some little while: Bilbo found he could not serve tea at all, for all the hobbits arriving at his door, until Rose arrived and volunteered to do it for him; and even so, he was run off his feet welcoming people, until almost all the hobbits of Hobbiton (barring children) were in his living room. But that, of course, had been his plan, and once he was sure that no-one else was yet to arrive, he stepped into the living room and stood before the expectant crowd. There was a general murmur of conversation, but this died down when they saw he was preparing to speak. Bilbo felt perhaps a little nervous, but Rose smiled and nodded at him, and he cleared his throat and began.

“My dear hobbits,” he said, “thank you all for coming. I think you know what it is I want to talk to you about.”

A few hobbits sat up at that, looking around as if they expected little dwarves to appear out of nowhere. Bilbo continued.

“I’m sure you’ve all heard something about my having guests at Bag End. Well, it is true—some of it, anyway. I have not adopted anyone, but a little more than a week ago I did find two children by the side of the road on my way back from Bywater.”

“Dwarf children, was it, Bilbo?” asked Adalgrim Took, and Bilbo nodded, rather annoyed at the interruption.

“Dwarf children, indeed,” he said, and a quiet murmur of excitement rippled through the assembled crowd. “Young ones—one of them very young indeed—and in difficulties. They were half-starved and more than half-frozen, and the younger one was quite ill—indeed, he has almost died more than once since he arrived here. They are orphans, and have lost their friends, and they had been wandering in the wilderness for some time. Of course, I could do nothing other than take them in. And here they will stay until I can find one of their people who I trust to look after them, for it seems they have been very poorly treated by at least one person who should have helped them, and I am determined that such a thing should not happen again.”

“Quite right,” murmured Asphodel Burrows, but one or two of the other hobbits looked rather ill at ease.

“Can we see them, though?” asked Odo Proudfoot, and then, in response to a comment that Bilbo could not hear, “Well, but I have never seen a dwarf and I should like to. I’m sure they are very queer.”

“They’re asleep,” Bilbo said, and Asphodel nodded firmly, as if to say as all children should be at this time of night. “But, my dear friends, I have brought you here because I know you are kind and generous hobbits—my dear neighbours, who I have known all my life. I know you are very kind, and so I have brought you to ask you a favour.” He paused, wondering if he was laying it all on a little too thick. But his audience largely seemed to be engaged in nodded approvingly, and one hobbit was heard to whisper, yes, indeed, I have always said that I am uncommonly kind, and so Bilbo felt rather encouraged.

“Well, two favours, really,” he said. “You see, the little dwarves are very frightened and shy of strangers. They have been poorly treated, as I have said—quite poorly, and even violently treated. And so they are frightened of strangers, with very good reason. I know that you would all like very much to meet them”—and he laid a little emphasis on the word meet, for he did not like all the talk of looking at the dwarves, as if they were paintings or ornaments—“but I would ask you to wait until they are ready to meet you. And if you could please instruct your children to do the same—I want so much for them to feel safe here, you see, and I know that you, kind hobbits that you are, feel the same way.”

A rather disappointed-sounding murmur rose from the assembled hobbits, now, and some of them began to look a little annoyed. Bilbo hastened onwards, hoping to say his piece before anyone decided to interrupt.

“The other favour,” he said, “is that I would ask you not to speak about these dwarves to anyone outside Hobbiton. Of course you all know about them—how could you not, when they are living here among you?—but, as I have said, they are frightened that perhaps some of those who have treated them badly in the past will find them here, and so if you could avoid spreading the news of them to where it may reach strangers’ ears, then—”

“Oh, but that is just childish fancy,” Mira Took said from the back of the room. “What strangers would ever come here, to the Shire? My dear Bilbo, you do not need to worry about such things.”

“And I do think we should be allowed to see them,” added Odo stubbornly. “If they’re going to be here, and all. Dwarves can be quite dangerous, so I’ve heard.”

“These ones are not dangerous in the slightest,” Bilbo said, trying not to think of Fili’s sword, locked in the pantry. “They are only children.”

“All the same,” Odo muttered.

“Yes, well, it’s all very well talking about kindness,” Lily said, speaking up from her seat near the fire, “but kindness is no good without common sense, and it seems some hobbits not too far from here are rather lacking in that.” She shot a steely glance at Odo, who glared at her.

“What do you mean by that?” he asked, and Bilbo began to get the feeling that things were rapidly going awry. He opened his mouth to try and prevent an argument, but before he could speak, a sudden hush fell on the room. Bilbo blinked, and turned to see what everyone was looking at. And there, standing in front of the living room door, was Kili. He was rubbing his eyes, his doll clutched in one hand, and he looked very small in Bilbo’s oversized shirt, with his feet bare and his hair dishevelled with sleep.

“Mr Bilbo,” he whispered, and then seemed to notice the roomful of hobbits who were all staring at him. His eyes grew suddenly wide, his face pale, and he seemed frozen in place, mouth open in terror.

And Bilbo, looking around at the assembled hobbits, had a sudden notion. Perhaps it was not the kindest notion he could have had, but it was a very sensible one, in some ways, and after all, he was only thinking of the best interests of his dwarven guests, in the end. For he looked around, and he saw the faces of some of the hobbits, ill at ease or even annoyed only a few moments before, now seeming much softer, and in some cases even charmed or delighted. He looked back at Kili and saw what they saw: just what they had been looking for, a tiny dwarf with large ears. A tiny dwarf who looked pale and frightened, too thin, cheeks hollow. A tiny dwarf looked like he might run away at any moment, and Bilbo felt suddenly that he must act on his notion, if he was to rescue his plan. So he stooped, and swept Kili up into his arms, settling him on his hip just as Fili liked to do.

“Did you have another nightmare?” he asked, and perhaps he said it a little loudly, but he wanted to make sure it would be heard all the way to the back of the room.

Kili, eyes still fixed on the crowd, swallowed hard.

“Mr Bilbo,” he whispered, “there’s all hobbits.”

And he began to cry.

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said, stroking Kili’s back. “Sh, now, my dear boy. There’s no need to be scared. They are all very kind hobbits.” He looked around at his assembled guests, and was pleased (although, of course, he did his best not to show it) to see that they were now for the most part beginning to look quite sympathetic. “I’m terribly sorry,” he said in their general direction. “He has been so badly treated, you see—he is frightened of strangers.” Kili, meanwhile, had buried his face in Bilbo’s shoulder, and was clinging to him and even shaking a little, and Bilbo decided that he could not, in good conscience, continue his plan any longer. “I must put him back to bed,” he said, and hoped that what the hobbits had seen would be enough to overcome their more curious instincts.

He turned and hurried out of the room, making his way along the hall to the dwarves’ room. “There now, sh, there there,” he murmured as he went, beginning to feel rather guilty for his part in upsetting Kili, even though he had had the best of intentions. Kili, for his part, remained just as he had been, shoulders shaking, and Bilbo could feel from the dampness spreading through his shirt that he was still crying. He slipped in through the dwarves’ bedroom door—which Kili had left ajar—and, struggling to see by the dim light that fell through from the hall, attempted to lay Kili back in the bed. This task was not as easy to accomplish as he had hoped, however: the little dwarf clung to him, whimpering almost silently, and Bilbo began to feel quite guilty indeed.

“It’s all right, now,” he murmured. “They’re gone now. Your brother is here.”

As if in response to this, there was a sudden sharp gasp, and movement in front of Bilbo in the dark—movement which began abruptly and immediately became frantic. “Kili?” Fili’s voice said, already rising into a panic as he fumbled around on the bed. “Kili, where are you?”

“He is here,” Bilbo said quickly. “I have him. He is here, master dwarf, and quite safe, I assure you.”

There was a brief pause, and then Fili struck a light, lighting the lamp beside his bed. He blinked at Bilbo in the sudden glare, and then frowned at Kili, who was still curled in Bilbo’s arms, face hidden.

“What happened?” he asked, shuffling closer. “He can’t breathe?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” Bilbo said. “He just got a fright. I have some—friends visiting and he was scared of them.”

Fili stared at him for a long moment. “Friends?” he said. “What friends?”

“Just some friends of mine from the village,” Bilbo said. “Hobbits. Nobody who might do either of you any harm, I promise. They didn’t do anything to him, he was just frightened because he didn’t expect them to be there.”

Fili’s frown deepened. “Give him to me,” he said, holding out his arms. Bilbo was perfectly happy to comply, although it ultimately required a little physical force to persuade Kili to let go of him. In the process of being passed from one set of arms to another, the poor little dwarf began to sob, shaking more violently now, and Bilbo shook his head.

“Well, I don’t understand why you’re still so scared,” he said. “There’s no-one here now.”

“No, no,” Kili moaned, struggling weakly in Fili’s arms. “No, Fili, help me. Mama, Mama, they’ve got me.”

“I’ve got you,” Fili said, shaking him a little. “I’m the one who’s got you. Wake up. Sh, wake up, it’s all right.”

“He was awake,” Bilbo said, feeling quite confused now. “He was awake in the living room. He can’t be asleep now.”

Fili shook his head. “He has dreams when he’s awake sometimes,” he said. “Sh, Kili. Wake up.”

Kili gasped and sobbed a little, then seemed to come to himself, blinking and hiccuping in Fili’s arms. “Where’s my doll?” he whispered.

“Here,” Fili said, tucking the doll under Kili’s arm. “There. Now you’ve got everything you need.”

“Is Mama coming soon?” Kili asked, and Fili sighed and pressed their foreheads together.

“No, brother,” he said. “But I’m here. I’m looking after you.”

Kili clutched at his brother, burrowing into his embrace. “There was all hobbits,” he mumbled. “Lots of hobbits.”

“They’re going home now,” Fili said. “Mr Bilbo will make them go away. And I’ll look after you until they’ve gone.” He looked up at Bilbo, expectant, and Bilbo felt suddenly that he was being judged once again. And this time, perhaps he had deserved it: he had, after all, deliberately allowed Kili to get upset in order to tug on his neighbours’ heartstrings. And now, it seemed Kili was rather more upset than he had anticipated—dreaming when he was awake? Whoever heard of such a thing?—and it was time for Bilbo to make amends.

“I’ll ask them to go,” he said. “I’m sure they will, for they are all very kind hobbits.” And he hoped that he was right.

****

When Bilbo returned to the living room, it was to find a general hum of conversation, which quietened as soon as he stepped through the door. All eyes turned to him, and he suddenly understood something of how Kili must have felt, being the centre of such concentrated attention.

“Hello,” he said, and then cleared his throat. “I’m terribly sorry, my dear hobbits, but my little dwarf guest is rather terrified of you all. I’m afraid I must ask you to leave, or he will never sleep tonight, and then his brother will be quite upset with me.”

He expected some grumbles, even perhaps some objections. But what he got instead was a number of nods, understanding smiles, and although Odo Proudfoot did seem to say something in an undertone, he was roundly shushed by all the hobbits standing near him.

“Well, of course,” Asphodel Burrows said. “And I hope you will tell him that I certainly didn’t mean to scare him, at any rate. And that he and his brother are very welcome here, and they will be safe.”

“Aye, tell em that from me, too,” came the voice of Holman Greenhand, Hamfast’s uncle, from the back of the crowd. “We’ll keep their secret, if it’ll make em feel better.”

There was a murmur of agreement from a number of hobbits, and Gilda Brandybuck suddenly looked very pleased with herself.

“A Hobbiton secret!” she said. “Just for our own.”

The hobbits brightened at this—for there were many small rivalries between villages in the Shire, and Hobbiton hobbits thought of themselves as being quite different from hobbits in Bywater, let alone Buckland—and there was much nodding and self-satisfied comments.

“Oh, indeed,” Bilbo said, feeling rather foolish for not having thought of calling it a Hobbiton secret before. “Yes, our own secret. And it will make them feel so much better. Thank you all, you are very kind.”

“Well, I do think Hobbiton hobbits are probably kinder than most other hobbits,” Mira Took said. “And of course hobbits in general are much kinder than other folk.”

“Oh, of course, of course,” Bilbo said, beginning to usher them towards the door. “Would you like to take some cake with you? Oh yes, I will bring them to meet you properly just as soon as they feel more comfortable with strangers. Thank you, thank you. Good night.”

At last, the last of the hobbits filtered out—Rose patting him on the arm as she passed—and Bilbo closed the door behind them and leaned against it for a moment, closing his eyes. “Too many hobbits never did anyone any good,” he muttered to himself. Then he gathered himself and went to the dwarves’ room.

When he got there, he found he could not open the door. It opened a very little way, and then stopped, as if something was behind it. He frowned, then knocked.

“Hello?” he said. “Is there something wrong with the door?”

Silence. Then the faint sound of whispering. And at last, Fili’s voice.

“Who’s out there?”

“It’s Bilbo,” Bilbo said, thinking that this should have been quite obvious.

“Who else?”

“No-one else,” Bilbo said, and then understood. “I’m quite alone,” he said. “All the hobbits have gone home. I promise.”

A longer pause. More whispering. “Are they coming back?”

Bilbo closed his eyes for a moment. To think that anyone could be so frightened of a crowd of hobbits! “No, they have all gone home to bed,” he said. “I will lock the front door.” He went and did so—something that he rarely troubled himself to do—and then came back. “There, it is locked,” he said. “Now, will you let me in?”

After a moment, there was a shuffling sort of sound inside the room, then a scraping, and at last, the door began to swing open. Bilbo was confronted with the sight of Fili standing in the doorway, blocking the way into the room as best he could. Behind him, the room was empty, Kili nowhere in evidence.

“Hello,” Bilbo said, beginning to feel as though inviting the hobbits had been a mistake, despite his success at persuading them to keep the dwarves’ secrets. “Where is your brother?”

Fili eyed him for a moment, then went to the bed. He knelt down and peered underneath it. “It’s just Mr Bilbo,” he said. “Everyone else has gone. He’s locked the door, so they won’t come back.” He reached a hand under the bed, and a moment later, Kili came slithering out. Fili helped him to his feet, and the two of them stood looking up at Bilbo, Fili with his arm tightly around Kili’s shoulders. They made a forlorn pair in their nightshirts, Kili’s face still tear-streaked and his hair sticking out in all directions. Bilbo swallowed against the guilt in his chest, and then knelt down before them.

“I’m so sorry you were scared,” he said to Kili. “I know that was a lot of hobbits to meet all at once. But they are kind, nice hobbits, I promise you. Hobbits are not cruel, as a rule, and I certainly would not invite any cruel hobbits to my home. But I am sorry. I should have warned you.” He stopped short of apologising for picking Kili up and keeping him in the room with the hobbits, for he thought that Fili would not take kindly to that, even if he didn’t admit that he had done it on purpose to show them all how fragile the child was.

Kili stared at him, then whispered something to Fili. Fili nodded.

“Are you going to invite any more hobbits?” he asked.

“Hm,” Bilbo said. “No. Some may come to visit of their own accord, just as Rose and Lily and Ham do. And you like them, don’t you?”

Kili whispered to Fili again. “We don’t like Lily,” Fili said.

“Well, that seems a little unfair,” Bilbo said. “She did save your brother’s life more than once.” He thought for a moment. “You don’t like her, perhaps, but does she make you feel like you’re not safe?”

The was a short consultation between Fili and Kili—conducted largely in their gesture-language—and then they turned back to Bilbo.

“No,” Fili said. “If she needs to come here to look after Kili and stop him being ill, that’s all right.”

Bilbo couldn’t help but smile a little at this. “Oh, I have your permission to invite my friend to my home, do I?” he asked.

Fili gave a solemn nod, and Bilbo shook his head. “Well, now. If anyone else comes, we will talk about it, and I will make sure you feel safe. Is that enough for now? You should both be in bed.”

With that, he helped the dwarves into bed, tucked them in securely, and stood considering them. Kili seemed very quiet—withdrawn, even—and his eyes were still open, and showed no signs of impending sleep. He had his doll crushed between his arm and his chest, and he was pressed up close against Fili’s side. Fili, meanwhile, was wide awake and watchful. Bilbo felt that rush of guilt again. But really, something had had to be done to prevent the news of the dwarves’ existence from spreading all over the Shire, and perhaps even to Bree and beyond. He had certainly done the right thing. Certainly.

(But later on, when he was awoken by Kili’s shrieking nightmare, he wondered if he was quite as certain as all that.)

****

The second incident occurred a few days after the first. The most recent snow fall had melted away, leaving the world outside looking sodden and dreary. Even Kili seemed to have lost any desire to go outside—thankfully, since of course neither Fili nor Bilbo would permit him such a thing—and the dwarves seemed to have settled after their upset with Bilbo’s hobbit visitors. Bilbo had spent some time that morning with a pencil and paper, counting the days since the dwarves had arrived, and the days since Ham’s father had left for Bree, and trying to make some reckoning of how long his letter might take to reach Mr Bofur. But since he had not the first idea of how difficult the road from Bree to Ered Luin might be, not to mention the vagaries of the weather at this time of year, he had not made a great deal of progress, and eventually he gave up and looked for something to distract himself.

He found it in the dwarves’ room. He had decided to change their bedlinen, but when he entered, he found himself struck by a strange smell, rather like something was rotting. The source of this smell was not obvious—he looked underneath the bed, behind the curtains, in all the corners, thinking perhaps a small animal had crawled inside and died. It wasn’t until he opened a cupboard in the corner which, to his knowledge, had nothing in it at all that he located the problem. Inside this cupboard was a cloth bag that Bilbo recognised as one of his own, and inside the bag, when Bilbo peered in, was a collection of rotting and mouldy food. Bilbo turned his face away in disgust, but after a moment, he turned it back, perplexed. There were lumps of cheese—quite small—and pieces of bread barely recognisable under a rich forest of mould. Here was what looked like a half-eaten piece of cake, and there were a number of apples, the only things in the bag that looked still edible. The whole was dusted with what turned out on close inspection to be oats, as if someone had taken a handful or two and thrown them in loose.

“What in the world?” Bilbo asked himself. Surely this could only have been put there by the dwarves. By Fili, of course. And surely he must have collected this food when it was still fresh—he must have been hoarding it for—for what?

Bilbo felt suddenly cold. Of course, of course—the food was for when he and Kili ran away. Perhaps it was left over from their first attempt, but since they hadn’t taken any food with them then apart from a few apples, and certainly hadn’t brought any back, Bilbo thought it unlikely. Which meant that Fili must be making a new plan to leave. Oh, the foolish child! Bilbo put a hand over his mouth, trying not to imagine those two helpless creatures lost in the woods again in the dark and cold and wet, and then took a deep breath and went to find them.

He found them playing in the living room, a game that seemed to involve piling toys on top of each other until they fell over and then laughing heartily. Bilbo watched for a moment or two, and then, when the tower toppled for what seemed likely to be the umpteenth time, he took advantage.

“Fili,” he said, “could I have a quick word?”

Fili glanced up at him, still laughing, but he sobered quickly on seeing the expression on Bilbo’s face. He glanced at Kili, then back up at Bilbo.

“We haven’t done anything wrong,” he said, shuffling a little closer to his brother. “We’ve just been here, we haven’t done anything.”

Bilbo’s mood—which had been rather exasperated and not a little afraid, which of course led to rather more anger than perhaps was warranted—softened a little at this declaration.

“Well, no,” he said, sitting in the nearest armchair. “But— Now, Master Dwarf, I want to ask you something.”

Fili eyed him. “What is it?” he asked.

“Are you thinking—are you still considering trying to find your friends on your own?”

Fili frowned, then looked at Kili. “No,” he said. “I know we can’t go on our own. Kili will get ill. And we’re waiting for Mr Bofur to come now.”

“Is Mr Bofur coming soon?” Kili asked. Lately he had adopted a sort of halfway mode of speaking, somewhere between a whisper and a normal tone, as if he was testing the limits of Fili’s tolerance. And well he might: Fili was mercurial in mood, at times seemingly happy to let Kili talk as much as he liked (and, Bilbo had discovered, the child truly loved to talk), and at others hushing him if he said so much as a word.

“Not for a while, I shouldn’t think,” Bilbo said. “I doubt he has even received our letter yet.”

Kili fell silent, looking rather discontented, but Bilbo had not yet finished getting to the bottom of the sack of mouldy food, and so he turned back to Fili.

“I do hope you would tell me if there was some reason you might be thinking of running away,” he said. “I have not done anything to make you think you are not welcome, I hope?”

Fili was now beginning to look quite confused. “No,” he said. “We’re not going to run away. Kili can’t go outside.”

He seemed so genuine in his befuddlement that Bilbo could not but believe him. “Well,” he said, feeling befuddled himself, “then why have you been hoarding food?”

Fili just stared at him with a confused frown. “What food?” he asked.

“The food that is rotting in a sack in your room,” Bilbo said. “All the—bread and cheese, and the apples.” But even as he spoke, Fili’s expression only grew more confused, until Bilbo understood that either he was excellent at hiding his true feelings (which, given his past behaviour, Bilbo thought very unlikely to be the case) or he was not the food-hoarder in question. And if he was not, that left only one person.

Fili seemed to come to the same conclusion, and he turned to look at Kili just at the same time as Bilbo did.

“Have you been putting food in a sack?” he asked.

Kili looked at Fili, then at Bilbo, and back at Fili, and seemed to shrink a little. “No,” he said. But the truth was clearly written on his face, and Fili cocked his head to one side and stared at him.

“What are you doing that for?” he asked. “Mr Bilbo says it’s gone rotten.”

“No, it hasn’t,” Kili said. “I put it in a cupboard. Like Mr Bilbo puts all his food in a cupboard so it doesn’t go nasty. So I put it in a cupboard, so it’s still nice.”

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said. “Why don’t you come with me, my boy?”

Kili gave him an anxious look, and Bilbo did his best to look, if not exactly pleased, then at least not angry. In fact, he was not angry, but only quite confused, and so this was quite straightforward. “I want to show you,” he said. “Here.”

He held out his hand, and Kili reluctantly scrambled to his feet and took it. Fili stood, too, and the three of them trooped through to the dwarves’ room, where Bilbo had left the sack in the middle of the floor. The stench was more obvious now that it was no longer hindered by the cupboard door, and both dwarves wrinkled their noses when they came in.

“Here, now,” Bilbo said, opening the sack. “Look.”

Kili peered inside, and then looked stunned. “It’s all nasty,” he said, and then looked at Fili. “It’s nasty,” he said again. “But I put it in the cupboard.”

“The reason I keep my food in the pantry is because it is cold,” Bilbo said. “It’s the cold that stops the food from rotting, not the fact of it being a cupboard. But it is warm in here, you see—even inside the cupboard. We keep it very warm to stop you from getting ill. Do you understand?”

Kili shook his head. “But now it’s all nasty,” he said in a small voice.

“It certainly is,” Bilbo said. “But there’s plenty more food where that came from. We shall certainly not run out, and you will not go hungry. You have not been feeling hungry, have you, my boy?”

Kili shook his head. “No, it’s nice, there’s lots of food,” he said. He smiled tentatively at Bilbo. “Lots of cake,” he said.

Bilbo smiled back. “Well, cake is very important,” he said. “But now, if you are not hungry, then why are you keeping all this food? What do you want it for?”

Kili chewed his lip. “It’s for when we’re in the woods again,” he said. “So we don’t get hungry. Because last time we got really hungry.” He hugged his doll tightly against his chest. “I didn’t like it last time,” he said.

Fili stared at him with a worried frown. “We’re not going in the woods again,” he said. “We’re not going to be hungry any more. We’re going to wait here for Mr Bofur. There’s lots of food here.”

“Yes, there’s lots,” Kili said. “Mr Bilbo’s nice and there’s lots of cake. But when we go in the woods again there won’t be any, and last time I got hungry.”

“But we’re not going in the woods again,” Fili said, and there was something of an edge to his voice. “I said that already.”

“I know,” Kili said. “But when we have to go there to find Mama, we’ll get hungry. Because—you said Mr Bofur’s coming, but if Mama’s not coming, maybe she’s still in the woods. So we’ll have to go and find her and then we’ll get hungry.”

This pronouncement had the effect of rendering Fili speechless. He stared at his brother, with a look on his face as if he might cry at any moment, and Bilbo—who had no desire to see such a thing happen—quickly stepped in, kneeling down in front of Kili.

“You will not have to go into the woods again,” he said. “We will make sure that everyone who needs to be found will come here to you. So you will not be hungry. Do you understand?”

Kili looked rather uncertain. “What if we are, though?” he said. “I don’t like being hungry.”

It became clear to Bilbo that reason was not likely to prevail against the stubbornness of the child, and so he began to consider other possibilities. He stood, then stooped and swept Kili into his arms, tickling him a little as he did so in the hopes of removing the solemn look from his face. His plan succeeded: Kili giggled and squirmed, and Bilbo juggled his weight until he was comfortable and then smiled at him.

“Well, now,” he said. “What about this? I will find a basket, and put it in the corner of the pantry, where it will be nice and cool,and every day you may put some food into the basket. And if ever you have to go back to the woods—though I can assure you you will not—you can take the basket with you. What do you think of that?”

Kili thought for a moment. “Will it stay nice?” he said.

“It will stay nice for much longer in there,” Bilbo said. “And we will take out anything that goes mouldy or rots, so as not to make all the other food rotten, too.”

“Can I put cake in?” Kili asked.

Bilbo chuckled. “If you can restrain yourself from eating it all,” he said. “Come on, then, let us find you a basket.”

He laid a hand on Fili’s shoulder, and Fili, still looking upset, followed them out of the room. Behind them, the sack still lay in the middle of the floor. But later, after Kili’s basket was placed in a corner of the pantry and inaugurated with a jar of honey and two slices of bread, Bilbo went to throw the food away and wash the sack out. There, he found the cupboard still open, and he frowned at it, and at the sack.

“Children are very confusing creatures,” he muttered to himself. “Or perhaps it is dwarves that are confusing. Or—well, I suppose it might be both.”

He peered out of the window at the rain that had begun falling an hour or two before. He hoped it would not make it too difficult for his letter to reach its destination. He rather felt that the assistance of a dwarven toymaker would be very useful to him at this juncture.

“Both,” he said. “I’m sure it is both.”

And he went to close the cupboard door.

Chapter Text

And so, time drew on. Bilbo kept assiduous notes about the items that went into Kili’s basket, in order to know when to take them out again before they spread mould across the whole pantry, and so he was able to have a record, of sorts, of the passing days. Tuesday: three apples. Wednesday: two slices of seed cake (originally one, but the child insisted it be cut in two so that there would be some for his brother). Thursday: a parcel of salted meat. After not so very many days, the basket became rather full, and Bilbo suggested that they might reduce the amount that Kili was putting away each day. But the little dwarf shook his head as though this was the most foolish of suggestions.

“We can just get another basket, though,” he said. “You’ve got lots, I’ve seen them.”

“Sh, Kili,” Fili said at once. “Mr Bilbo doesn’t want to be giving you all his baskets.”

But Bilbo, who had seen the relieved look on Kili’s face each time he looked in on his overflowing basket of provisions, thought there could be no harm in supplying even more—after all, it was not as though they were likely to run out of food any time soon. So he found another basket, and Kili proceeded to fill this one, too, saving something from his plate at each meal (though of course Bilbo made sure to give him extra food to make up for it).

After a while, Bilbo began to add other notes to his account of the provisions. Monday: pickled onions. The dwarves made some kind of house out of bedsheets in the living room. Most inconvenient. Tuesday: a bottle of milk, of all things. I have told him it will not last three days, not to mention the weight of it if they ever should have to carry the basket, but he is very stubborn. I wonder if it is a trait of all dwarves, or simply these ones?

And time went on.

It was around ten days after the beginning of Bilbo’s account-taking when there came a break in the weather. It was early January, and there had been a hard frost every day for what seemed like weeks. And then: blue skies, and air that, if not exactly balmy, was at least not painful to breathe, and everywhere a renewal of little streams that ran sparkling down the hillside to join the Water. Bilbo went outside his front door and found himself dazzled by it all. Why, one could almost believe that spring was around the corner.

“Mr Bilbo,” Kili said to him as soon as he came back in, “is it warm outside?”

“No,” Fili said, at the same time as Bilbo said “Well, it is not so cold as it has been, certainly.”

Fili made a disgruntled face, but Kili seemed delighted, bounding up onto his favourite windowsill to press his face and hands against the glass.

“Mr Bilbo says it’s warm,” he said, apparently to his brother, although all his attention seemed fixed on the outside world. “So I can go outside.”

“No, you can’t,” Fili said, and Bilbo suddenly understood Kili’s reason for asking, and felt rather sorry for his answer. The little dwarf had been showing more and more signs of restless energy of late, and had been going to look out of the window many times a day, a longing expression on his face. And still, Bilbo had not forgotten the desperate moments when it had seemed as though Kili might die, and if he had not forgotten them, how much sharper must they be in the memory of Fili, who was so afraid that some harm might befall his brother?

“I think it is still a little cold,” Bilbo said, earning himself an approving nod from Fili.

Kili turned at that, face crumpling. “But it’s sunny,” he said, pointing. “It’s sunny and there’s no snow and no ice. And you said I could go out when it got warm, you said.” This last was said in a whining sort of tone that set Bilbo’s teeth on edge.

“Master dwarf,” he said, perhaps a little sharply—but truly, it was very difficult when the child spoke in that irritating tone—“it is not warm enough for you to go outside. Now go and play like a good boy.”

“See?” Fili said, perhaps a little more triumphantly than was warranted. Kili, for his part, swallowed hard, eyes suddenly bright, and Bilbo turn quickly away, for he had learned by experience that he was no match for this particular child’s tears.

“It will be spring soon enough,” he said, even though at least two long months stretched away before them until the beginning of anything that might be termed spring. Behind him, he heard some quiet sniffles, and he went into the kitchen and began to clatter about loudly to drown the noise of Kili’s misery. Thankfully, the child seemed to have the habit of crying very quietly, except when he was trapped in a nightmare, but even so, Bilbo imagined he could hear him, and it was not the most pleasant of fancies, to be sure.

But there: it was still winter, and Kili’s health was still uncertain—though he had not suffered from an attack for more than a week—and it was best to be prudent. And if there was one thing Bilbo felt rather good at, it was prudence. And so that was the end of that.

Except that it was not, as it turned out. For the day continued sunny and almost-warm, and Kili continued withdrawn and miserable-looking, sitting on the windowsill for most of the day and staring longingly out. And that was not all: more than once, Bilbo caught Fili casting glances at the window, when he thought no-one was watching. And indeed, the little dwarves had been cooped up inside for almost a month by now, barring their brief foray that had led to such disaster. Perhaps Bilbo was not very experienced (and his lack of experience seemed more glaring to him every day, although he felt sure that the reverse ought to be true), but he was sure that children ought to spend time outside, in order to be healthy and happy.

When Bilbo opened the curtains the next day to find that the sky was cloudless and that, although the sun was not yet risen, it promised to be another clear, sunny day, he felt his heart sink rather, for he could not bear the thought of watching Kili stare out all day once again. And when, an hour or two later, he went outside to find it was not very cold at all, he resolved that he would at least make sure before denying the little dwarf his desire. Seeing Lily coming up the hill, he waved to her, and when she turned aside in her path to come and speak to him, he explained to her his problem.

“And so you see, I wonder if he is indeed well enough,” he said. “But I have no way of telling, and after last time—”

“After last time, indeed,” said Lily, and the look she gave him told Bilbo that she had not forgotten about his supposed transgression, taking a poorly little dwarf out into the cold. “Hmph. Well, it is true that it is not healthy for children to be always inside. Nor for grown-ups, either, come to that. Let me look at him.”

Look at him she did, and Kili, who had become accustomed to being examined by Lily, opened his mouth when told, lifted his arms, breathed deeply, and generally was a model child. He did not speak to her—in fact, so far as Bilbo could tell, he had never spoken directly to any hobbit other than Bilbo himself, although he did forget himself and speak in their presence from time to time—but Lily seemed to have given up complaining about this, and so it was a fairly amicable examination. Once it was finished, Lily eyed the child thoughtfully, and then looked at Bilbo.

“There is no way to know without trying,” she said. “But I think it is probably safe, provided someone keeps a very close eye on him.”

Kili did not seem to hear this, focused as he was on the window once more. But Fili, who was sitting nearby watching, sat up with a frown.

“What is probably safe?” he asked, and then frowned at Bilbo. “Mr Bilbo?”

But it was Lily who answered, which rather stymied Bilbo’s idea, which had been to talk to Fili about the project in private. “For your brother to go outside,” she said. “And you should certainly go, too. You are looking quite sallow.”

Bilbo turned to look at Fili in surprise—indeed, he was not looking healthy and rosy-cheeked like a hobbit child, but then, perhaps that was simply the way with dwarves—but he was cut off from any ponderings on Fili’s general appearance by the sudden, more specific appearance of an expression of fury.

“He can’t go outside,” he said. “He’ll get ill.”

The sharp tone of his voice was enough to alert Kili that something important was happening, and his eyes grew suddenly wide.

“Can I go outside?” he asked. “Mr Bilbo, can I?”

“Bother,” muttered Bilbo under his breath, and he might have said something rather stronger, had it not been for the presence of the two little dwarves (although, of course, had it not been for their presence, he would not have had to say it at all).

“No, you can’t,” Fili said, and Bilbo drew a deep breath.

“Master dwarf,” he said. “I think perhaps we could let your brother go outside for a few minutes. Not far at all, you understand, and to come inside immediately if he should show any symptoms at all. But he cannot remain inside this hobbit hole for the rest of his life.”

Fili scowled. “Yes, he can,” he said. “Why not?”

Bilbo stared at him in disbelief. “Well—because eventually, your friends will come for you and you will go home. And how do you think you will get there without going outside?”

Fili’s scowl deepened. “My u— our friends will think of something,” he said. “They’re very clever.”

Well, Bilbo felt rather like giving up in exasperation. But at that moment, Kili, apparently having quickly run out of patience with their argument, hopped off the stool he had been standing on during Lily’s examination, and ran over to Bilbo, throwing his arms around Bilbo’s leg.

“Please can I go outside, Mr Bilbo, please?” he said. “Fili says I can’t, but he’s mean and he doesn’t know anything.”

“I’m not mean,” Fili said, glaring at Kili. “You’re just being stupid.”

“I’m not stupid!” Kili said. “Mr Bilbo says I’m clever!” He turned his attention back to the aforementioned Mr Bilbo, voice rising into a pleading tone that had something of a whine to it. “Please can I go, I’ll be very good and I won’t get muddy at all!”

Bilbo looked down at him in some consternation, having not considered the question of mud at all. The dwarves—and Kili in particular—seemed to attract dirt, and, if there was none to be attracted, to somehow create it out of nowhere, and if they could do such things in a clean hobbit hole, Bilbo dreaded to think what hay they might make in the decidedly filthy world outside the front door. But that was a less pressing question than the one of the burgeoning argument, and he set his concerns aside and bent to pick Kili up.

“Now, then,” he said. “That was not a very kind thing you said about your brother, who is only concerned for your welfare, after all.”

Kili blinked at him, wide-eyed, and Bilbo assumed the sternest expression he could muster.

“I think you should apologise,” he said.

Kili made a mutinous face at this, and Bilbo raised his eyebrows.

“Oh,” he said, “then am I to take it you don’t want to go outside, after all?”

The change in Kili’s expression was so sudden that Bilbo had to work hard not to laugh. “I’m sorry,” he squeaked. “I’m sorry, Fili, I’m sorry.”

“Good,” Bilbo said. “And now, Master Fili, I rather think you should apologise as well.”

“What for?” Fili asked, looking anything but apologetic.

“For calling your brother stupid,” Bilbo said. “It was not very kind.”

“Well, he is being stupid,” Fili said, and Bilbo felt his temper begin to fray.

“He has been stuck inside this hobbit hole for far too long—as have we all,” he snapped. “I don’t think it’s stupid to want to go outside on such a beautiful day.”

Kili changed his tactics, now, turning to Fili. “I’ll be good, I will,” he said. “I’m not ill any more, I’m better, Miss Lily said I am. Please, Fili, can I go outside?”

The answer to this question was obvious from Fili’s face, and Bilbo sighed a little and arranged himself in a chair facing Fili’s, Kili seated on his lap.

“Master dwarf,” he said, “I know you are very worried about your brother. But we are all getting rather on each other’s nerves, stuck in here like this. It is not good for any of us, and especially not good for you and your brother. Lily is here on hand in case something happens, and we will all be watching very carefully, so there is little serious danger. And I will set the water to boil before we go out, in case we should need the steam cure.”

None of this seemed to make the slightest impact on Fili. But, plead and reason as Bilbo might, he had no weapons in his arsenal as powerful as the ones held by little Kili, who, as Bilbo had learned, could be quite the dangerous creature, when he so chose. And at that moment, he chose to use his power to the full, his eyes growing wide and shining with tears, his lower lip and chin trembling.

“Please, Fili,” he whispered. “Please can I go? I’ll be so good, I promise.”

And that, in the end, was Fili’s undoing: for although he had a greater ability, on the whole, to resist Kili’s misery—perhaps for having been longer accustomed to it—he was not made of stone, and after a moment or two of trying to keep up his furious glaring, he closed his eyes and sighed.

“But we’ll watch him, won’t we, Mr Bilbo?” he said. “And we won’t go very far.”

“Not far at all,” Bilbo said, somewhat drowned out by Kili’s cry of delight. “Not far at all.”

****

So it was that the little party of four (for Lily had stayed to make sure of Kili’s health) got dressed for the outside world—Kili wrapped up rather too zealously by his brother and Bilbo both, until he looked like a strange little scarecrow and was unable to properly lower his arms—and then Bilbo opened the door. Kili bounded forward with a shout, but Bilbo and Fili both seized him by the hands and hung on, and so all of them stepped out at a more sedate pace into the pale blue of the sunny winter’s day. Immediately, Bilbo began to feel rather lighter and less oppressed, though indeed he had not been aware of any oppression until that very moment. Kili, of course, was delighted to be in the open air again, and even Fili seemed a little brighter, though mostly he was just concentrating all of his attention on listening to his brother breathing. He seemed rather tense as they made their way to the garden gate, and after a moment or two, Kili made a whimpering sound.

“Ow,” he said. “You’re hurting my hand.”

Bilbo looked at him in surprise, and saw that it was to Fili that he had directed this complaint. Fili immediately let go of his brother’s hand, and Kili snatched it back and nursed it against his chest.

“Ow,” he mumbled.

Fili looked far more guilty than really was necessary, given the minor nature of his offence, and Bilbo was opening his mouth to reassure him when help came from an unexpected quarter.

“Don’t take on, now,” Lily said, laying a heavy hand on Fili’s shoulder. “You only held on too tight because you are so concerned for his welfare. There is nothing to be ashamed of in that.”

Fili did not seem quite comforted by this, but at that moment, Kili gave a little squeak. “Fili, look! A horsie!” He seized his brother by the arm, letting go of Bilbo’s hand, and started to run forward, towards the pony that was skirting the bottom of the hill, pulling a cart.

“Don’t run!” Fili said, and then, when Kili ignored him, ran a little faster to overtake him and scooped him up into his arms. “Don’t run,” he said again. “Miss Lily says you can’t run and be cold at the same time.”

“I’m not cold!” Kili cried. “Fili, the horsie! I want to see!”

“I’ll take you,” Fili said, having obviously decided he didn’t trust Kili to walk by himself. And, by a rather complex manoeuvre, he shifted Kili around until he was piggyback, and started stumping heavily towards the horse and cart. Kili crowed in delight and waved his arms wildly, as if being carried piggyback was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to him. Bilbo, hanging back a little with Lily, shook his head.

“That child is baffling,” he said.

“They all are,” Lily said. “I advise you not to try and make any sense out of their behaviour. It will only give you a headache.”

Bilbo laughed a little at this, and then they caught up with the dwarves, who had stopped stock still when they spied the hobbit who was driving the pony and cart. This hobbit—Old Mr Cotton, who had been old even when Bilbo was a boy—reined in his pony and then peered down at the two of them.

“What’s this?” he shouted—being a trifle deaf—“Hobbitlings, is it? What do you want?”

Neither dwarf answered—Kili was hiding himself as far as possible and peering out from behind his brother’s hair—and Old Mr Cotton squinted down at them.

“Lot of hair for hobbitlings,” he muttered.

Kili whispered something in Fili’s ear, which occasioned a short, whispered argument. Then Fili stepped forward (and, since Kili was still on his back, he came forward, too).

“Mister,” Fili said, “can my brother pat your horse?”

Bilbo raised his eyebrows in surprise at Kili’s sudden desire to put himself forward in front of a stranger. But Kili was not putting himself forward—was still hiding behind his brother, in fact. Nonetheless, he stared up at the pony from behind his brother’s head, eyes round, and Bilbo thought that perhaps his desire to stroke it was more overwhelming than his desire to hide from Mr Cotton.

“Eh?” Mr Cotton asked. “What?”

“The horsie,” Kili said, very quietly, and Fili shushed him.

“He wants to pat your horse,” he said loudly. “He likes horses.”

“Does he?” Old Mr Cotton said. “Does he, now? Well, he better had, then, hadn’t he?”

“Thank you,” Fili said, and then he helped Kili to climb up onto his shoulders so he could reach up and pat the pony’s nose. The pony blew air out of its nostrils and nosed at Kili, and Kili looked enchanted.

“Nice horsie,” he whispered.

“Here, boy,” Old Mr Cotton said, and he produced a wizened apple out of his pocket. “Give her this and she’ll be your friend for life.”

He tossed the apple at Kili, who snatched at it and missed, causing the whole edifice of Fili-and-Kili to wobble in a rather dangerous-looking way. Bilbo darted forward, picking up the apple and handing it to Kili, who clutched it in both hands for a moment before offering it to the pony.

“Nice horsie,” he whispered again, as the pony whuffled at the apple, then plucked it daintily out of Kili’s hands.

“Hmph,” Old Mr Cotton said, staring now at Bilbo. “Is that young Bilbo Baggins? Got hobbitlings of your own, now, have you? Never would have thought the two of you would get married.”

Bilbo blinked, and then glanced at Lily, who looked rather offended.

“Oh, er—” Bilbo said, but Mr Cotton had stopped paying any attention to them.

“All right, boy,” he said to Kili. “Time to get down. Can’t waste time chattering away all day!”

Kili stroked the pony’s nose one more time, then clambered down from his brother’s shoulders, and both of them stood out of the way and watched the cart and pony go past. Kili turned to Bilbo with a huge, beaming smile.

“Did you see the horsie, Mr Bilbo?” he asked.

“I did, indeed,” Bilbo said. “I think she liked you.”

Kili hugged himself with glee, and then grabbed Fili’s hand.

“Come on,” he said, “let’s see if there’s more horsies!”

There were no more horses to be seen—and indeed, precious few hobbits out and about, for the ground was rather muddy with the thaw, and it was not, after all, the warmest of days. But Kili pattered about happily enough, fascinated by all kinds of odd things, and Fili, once he began to understand that his brother would not fall down dead from the cold, started to look very interested, too. Neither of them had seen very much of Hobbiton at all, Bilbo realised, and they exclaimed over the round doors and windows let into the hillside, over the little gates and fences, even over the smoking chimneys, which they climbed up onto the hills to peer into, so that their faces became streaked with soot. Kili did not keep to his promise, but got rather muddy rather quickly. Not only that, but he began to collect things. Not leaves and flowers and pretty things—not that there were many such in the middle of winter—but—well.

“Mr Bilbo!” Kili said in his half-whisper, stumbling up to him with his hands cupped in front of him. “Look what I’ve got!”

Bilbo bent over to look, and found that the child had caught a centipede, and was holding it captive for no reason that Bilbo could imagine.

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said. “Did it try and bite you?”

“No,” Kili said. “It’s mine. It’s got all legs.”

“It’s yours, is it?” said Lily, from where she was sitting on a log next to Bilbo. “And where are you planning to keep it, young master dwarf?”

Kili looked shyly at her from under his fringe, then peered down at the centipede. Fili had arrived quietly behind him, but Kili didn’t seem to notice he was there.

“In my bed,” he said at last, though he addressed this to the empty air somewhere between Lily and Bilbo, and he spoke now entirely in a whisper. Still, Bilbo found himself looking at Fili to see what his reaction would be to Kili now speaking to another hobbit. To his surprise, he found that, though Fili was very watchful, he did nothing to interfere.

“In your bed, is it?” Lily said, raising her eyebrows. “And what if you roll over in the night and squash it?”

Kili looked alarmed at this. “I won’t!” he said. “It’s mine, I’ll look after it. I won’t squash it.”

“What if I squash it?” Fili asked, and Kili started and immediately assumed a guilty expression. “I might roll over and squash it. And anyway, I don’t want a centipede in my bed.”

Kili frowned at him. “Why not?” he said. “It’s nice. And it’d run away if you were coming to squash it. Look, it’s got legs.”

He held out the centipede towards Fili, and Fili made a disgusted face. Bilbo decided he should intervene before there was an argument.

“I think your bed is not really a suitable place for a centipede,” he said. “And certainly if Fili does not want it there, it would be rather thoughtless of you to ignore that. It is his bed, too, after all.”

Kili considered this for a moment, then nodded.

“I can put it in the cupboard, then,” he said.

“Hm,” Bilbo said, for he was not at all eager to have centipedes introduced into his cupboards. “I rather think it might be happiest out here. This is its home, you see, and I’m sure you understand how difficult it is to be taken away from your home.”

Well, as soon as he had said it, he realised that perhaps it might not have been well-judged. But of course, by then it was too late: Kili’s eyes were suddenly large and bright, and his lower lip was trembling.

“Oh dear,” Bilbo muttered. But Fili came to his assistance, putting an arm around his brother and pulling him in close.

“We’ll go home soon, though,” he said, quietly, as if he didn’t really want Bilbo and Lily to hear. “You’ve just got to be patient, like Mama always says.”

Kili sniffled and swallowed hard. “What about my thing?” he asked, waving his cupped hands at Fili. “How can I look after it if it’s out here?”

“You can come and visit it,” Bilbo said. “It can be your friend, instead of your pet. Then you will both be happy. I’m sure you want it to be happy, don’t you?”

Kili swallowed again. His nose was running, but he wasn’t able to wipe it on his hand, since he was holding the centipede, and so he just let it drip onto his coat. Bilbo swallowed an exclamation of horror and lunged forward with a pocket handkerchief—though not quite fast enough to prevent a second drip from landing. Meanwhile, Kili, unpredictable as ever, appeared to have reconciled himself to the centipede’s fate, and was smiling again.

“I’ll put it over here,” he announced in his breathy whisper, then went to the nearby muddy bank and carefully let the centipede out of its prison. “I’ll come and see you soon,” he promised, as it scuttled away.

Bilbo shook his head, marvelling. “He wants to keep a centipede in his bed,” he said to Lily.

“And am I to find you a remedy for a headache, after all?” Lily said, with a wry sort of smile.

“Hm,” Bilbo replied, smiling a little himself. “I may need it, before this day is out.”

****

Bilbo had to intercept three more of Kili’s unexpected guests over the next little while—a worm, a sluggish beetle and an unfortunate hibernating hedgehog which Kili had exhumed from who knew where—and he was beginning to think they should go in simply to put an end to proceedings before Kili found himself a dog or a cat or even a hobbit to bring home with him, when something else happened to distract them all. This something else was the arrival of a flock of hobbit children, chief among them Dahlia Burrows, Asphodel’s little daughter, and her elder brother Tommo. Whether these children were the same ones who had knocked on Bilbo’s door some two weeks before, Bilbo could not say, firstly because those children had been so thoroughly disguised by their industrious mothers, and secondly because he paid very little attention to children in general—or had, until recently—and found that they often all looked rather alike. But whether they were or not, the whole little troupe stopped short and stared at the sight of the two dwarves. And the dwarves, for their part, stared back, Fili edging in front of Kili.

“That’s them,” whispered one child loudly. “That’s them dwarves Papa was talking about.”

“They’ve got—things on their feet,” another child said, sounding scandalised. “What’re they for?”

“Look at the little un’s ears,” the first child replied, a little louder now. “He could fly away.”

Fili’s face darkened, then, and he drew himself up. “What do you want?” he asked. “Leave us alone, unless you want a fight.”

Bilbo felt rather nervous at this—and glad that Fili’s sword was still locked in the pantry in Bag End—and the hobbit children looked taken aback, physical fighting not being exceedingly common among hobbits, even the young ones. For a moment, it seemed as if everything might go terribly wrong, but then Dahlia stepped forward and bobbed a little curtsey.

“I’m Dahlia,” she said. “What’s your name?”

Fili stared at her for a long, quiet moment. And then, Kili spoke.

“Boh-rin,” he said, saying it very clearly and drawing out the o in an odd kind of way. Then he smiled and waved.

“Sh,” Fili said sharply, and then turned back to Dahlia. “He’s Borin,” he said. “I’m Dorin.”

There was some giggling over these names among the little crowd of hobbits. But Dahlia only grinned back at Kili, and at Fili too. “Would you like to play?” she said. “We’re playing Follow-My-Leader.”

Fili looked like he would refuse, but Kili suddenly tugged on his sleeve and gestured frantically at him. After a moment or two of silent conversation, Fili raised his eyebrows and Kili nodded vigorously. Then Fili turned back to Dahlia.

“We’ll play,” he said. “Borin doesn’t talk. He’s not allowed.”

An adult hobbit might have been curious or even outraged by this, but Dahlia seemed to take it in her stride. She nodded solemnly, and then, as if this was all that had been needed, the children began their game. At first, there were nudges and glances and whispers from some of the hobbits, looking at Fili and Kili. But, after not very much time at all, it became clear to Bilbo (who was having a little trouble following the nuances of the game) that Fili had somehow become the leader. And when the next game was chosen, it was to Fili that all the hobbits turned for a decision, although they had known him for less than half an hour. Kili, meanwhile, seemed delighted by everything and everyone, and if Fili became the leader with remarkable speed, Kili seemed to quickly become a favourite with several of the hobbits, including Dahlia. He was rather younger than any of the others—at least, so Bilbo suspected—but none of them even seemed to think of suggesting he might be too young to play with them. When he fell over, they set him on his feet so fast that Fili didn’t even have a chance to get angry, and they allowed him to win more than once, which had him beaming and gesturing excitably at anyone and everyone. Bilbo, who had rather thought that he would have to keep the dwarves away from the children of Hobbiton to avoid disaster, found himself very pleasantly surprised.

Soon enough, however, the games were cut short. For Fili suddenly stopped in mid-stride, staring at Kili, who was a few paces away from him. The game continued around them, only to halt when Fili darted forward, swept his brother off his feet, and began to hurry towards Bilbo. The hobbits all paused to stare at him in confusion, but Fili had no care for them. And it quickly became clear that it was not actually to Bilbo that his steps were directed, but to Lily.

“Miss Lily,” he said, coming to a breathless halt in front of her. “He’s not breathing properly.”

Lily was on her feet in a moment, listening closely at Kili’s mouth. Kili, meanwhile, looked confused and a little annoyed, and was squirming in Fili’s arms to be put down.

“Hmph,” Lily said, straightening up. “Nothing disastrous. But he should go back inside.”

And so back inside they went, despite Kili’s protests. But they had been outside for more than an hour, and Bilbo felt very cheered by the fresh air and sunlight, pale winter sun though it was. And more than anything else, by the fact that the dwarves had seemed to enjoy themselves—Kili, of course, but Fili as well, who, if not exactly cheerful, had seemed less sombre than usual out in the open air. And Kili, in the end, had suffered no serious ill effect—his breathlessness subsided by itself almost as soon as they were back in the warmth of Bag End. And so Bilbo decided to make a point of it: any day on which the weather was suitable would see them leaving the confines of the hobbit hole for a little while, at least. He made a note of it in what he was beginning to think of as a diary: Sunday: a handful of dried plums; went outside with the dwarves and was forced to prevent their bed from becoming the home to assorted wild creatures; must repeat at earliest convenience. And, having written this, he nodded down at the page.

“Very good,” he murmured. “Very good.”

****

But the day had not quite given up all its surprises yet. The last of these, though, came much later—almost on the next day, in fact. Bilbo had long gone to bed, and the dwarves, of course, had gone earlier still, and so when Bilbo awoke to the sound of someone creeping into his bedroom, he found his breath caught in his throat and his heart thundering with terror. He tried not to breathe—and found that this was rather inconvenient—and groped for the nearest thing with which to fend off the intruder. And then, he heard a small, sad sniffle, and came back to his senses.

“Fili?” he asked, sitting up and fumbling instead for the lamp. When he managed to light it, it illuminated the dwarf in question, standing in his nightshirt in the middle of the floor. He carried Kili in his arms, and the little dwarf was sleeping soundly on his shoulder. Fili, though, looked wide awake, and miserable with it: his eyes were red and sore-looking, and his he seemed as though he might be about to burst into tears.

“Fili?” Bilbo said again. “What’s the matter?”

Fili sniffled again. “Kili had a nightmare,” he whispered.

Bilbo raised his eyebrows, peering at Kili. If he had had a nightmare, it certainly didn’t seem to have been one of his usual ones, which left him awake and terrified for hours afterwards. Fili, on the other hand, looked like he’d seen a ghost, and then cried about it for some time afterwards. Perhaps he was only crying over his brother’s misery—but, since his brother did not look miserable at all, perhaps it was rather that Fili was not quite telling the truth.

“I see,” Bilbo said slowly. “Well—what do you think would make Kili feel better?”

Fili gave a one-shouldered shrug, looking most forlorn. Bilbo pondered how one might comfort a child frightened by a nightmare when said child would not even admit to having had a nightmare or being in need of comfort, and at the same time heartily wished he could just go back to sleep and not have to be thinking so hard in the middle of the night. And then, of course, the solution to both of these problems came to him.

“Do you think Kili would like to stay here with me?” he asked. “There’s plenty of room. You would have to stay as well, of course, to look after him—if that’s all right with you.”

Fili chewed his lip for a moment, then nodded.

“It’ll make him feel better,” he said, ignoring the fact that Kili gave no evidence of feeling bad. “And I’ve got to look after him.”

“Quite right,” Bilbo said. He shuffled over in the bed and pulled back the covers. “In you come, then.”

Fili came over to the bed, deposited Kili carefully on the mattress, and then climbed up himself. He curled around his brother, looking tense and not at all peaceful.

“There we are,” Bilbo said, pulling the covers up over all three of them. He blew out the lamp and lay back down, feeling rather tense himself, and not really very sleepy any more. He lay on his back, staring up at the ceiling, and very aware of the sound of the two dwarves breathing, Kili peacefully and slowly, Fili rather rough and tearful-sounding. He wondered if perhaps he should say something—try to comfort Fili, or the like. But since Fili had not admitted that he needed comfort, and in fact probably lied quite intentionally about that very question, Bilbo felt that this might not be welcome. And so he simply lay, tired but not sleepy, and wondered what to do next.

He might have been wondering all night, had not Kili made a quiet noise and then shifted in the bed.

“Mama?” he mumbled sleepily.

“Sh,” Fili whispered. “Go back to sleep.”

Kili mumbled something indistinguishable and turned over. His hand brushed Bilbo’s arm as he did so, and he paused and then brushed it again.

“Who’s that?” he asked.

“It’s Mr Bilbo,” Fili whispered. “Sh, or you’ll wake him up.”

Kili said something else that definitely included the words Mr Bilbo, but beyond that was unintelligible. Then he shuffled closer, resting his head on Bilbo’s arm. Bilbo, a little surprised, shifted himself so that his arm was around Kili, and Kili sighed quietly and curled up against his side, small fingers twisting in Bilbo’s nightshirt. On Kili’s other side, Fili moved closer, too, keeping as close to his brother as he could, so that Bilbo found himself half-embracing both of them, without really meaning to. It was not entirely comfortable, but Bilbo found to his surprise that he did not mind very much. Fili felt tense against his arm, but after a moment, he seemed to relax, even his breath coming a little more easily.

“G’nigh’ Mzzr Bilbo,” Kili mumbled.

Bilbo smiled. “Good night, master dwarf,” he said.

****

And so, life continued much the same for a little while. Kili proved that he was not quite better by having the occasional minor attack of breathlessness, but otherwise the closest thing to a dramatic event was the regular purging of stale and mouldy items from Kili’s basket, which invariably led the poor little dwarf to the verge of tears. At least, that was, until one morning, perhaps a week after the dwarves had first gone outside, when Hamfast Gamgee came hastening up the hillside and hammered on Bilbo’s door. Bilbo opened it in some surprise, for Ham was usually a polite sort of hobbit, if rather enthusiastic (which could no doubt be put down to his youth).

“Mr Bilbo!” Ham said, and then had to pause to catch his breath.

“What is it?” Bilbo asked. “Has something caught fire?”

Ham shook his head, gasping and gulping, and then managed to speak on.

“He’s in the Green Dragon, Mr Bilbo,” he said. “He’s asking for you.”

“Who is?” Bilbo asked. “Come, Ham, you must start from the beginning.”

But Ham did not. Instead, he shook his head and pointed down the hill towards the Green Dragon.

“A dwarf, Mr Bilbo,” he said. “A grown-up one.”

“A dwarf?” Bilbo asked, suddenly beginning to feel excited himself. “Did he say his name?”

Ham nodded. “Mr Bofur,” he said. “He says his name’s Mr Bofur.”

Chapter Text

“Mr Bofur!” Bilbo said, heart leaping in his chest. “Well, I never! I must go and speak to him at once!”

But he realised immediately after saying this that he could not simply run out of the house without so much as a word to his two young guests, who were both currently playing some variety of game somewhere in the hobbit hole—though where exactly they were, Bilbo was not entirely sure. It took him some time to find them (in one of his more inaccessible cupboards, for some reason) and longer still for them to extricate themselves and appear in the living room, looking dusty and dishevelled.

“Well,” Bilbo said. “Well, now, you two, I have some news for you. It seems your Mr Bofur has arrived and is currently waiting to speak to me at the Green Dragon.”

Both dwarves stood up straight, staring at Bilbo, round-eyed, and Kili broke into a beaming smile.

“Mr Bofur!” he said. “Fili, Mr Bofur! Mr Bofur’s come!”

Fili, though, did not look nearly so cheerful. He had an expression on his face as though he was fighting hard against something, and he was standing extremely still.

“Did you see him?” he asked. “Have you talked to him?”

“Hm?” Bilbo said. “Oh. No, I have not spoken to him myself. Ham has seen him, haven’t you, Ham?”

“Aye, I have,” Ham said. “Cheerful fellow, he was.”

“Is he bringing toys for us?” Kili asked. “Is Mama with him?”

“Well, I don’t rightly know about the toys, but there were no other dwarves with him,” Ham said.

“What did he look like?” Fili asked, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet. “Did you tell him about us?”

“I didn’t speak to him myself, not much, anyway,” Ham said. “He was dark-haired with a beard and moustache. Very cheerful, as I said. He was asking for Mr Bilbo, and he was that charming, Tolman Cotton was like to tell him all about you two lads. But I said to him he had to keep his mouth shut until Mr Bilbo gave his permission, because I know he’s quite particular about who knows about you both, and he remembered after that. Now, your Mr Bofur was asking about Bilbo’s two little sons, so we just went along with that, so we did, and that’s all there was to it.”

Fili chewed his lip, and if anything grew even more tense. Bilbo sighed and knelt down before him.

“What are you frightened of?” he asked. “Surely you must excited to finally see one of your friends?”

“Mr Bofur, Fili!” Kili said, tugging on his arm. “Maye he knows where Mama is!”

Fili swallowed. “What if it’s not really him?” he asked. “What if it’s—someone else?”

Bilbo sat back on his heels. “What sort of someone else?” he asked, for it had not really occurred to him that this could be what was worrying Fili. But Fili only shook his head and took hold of Kili’s hand, shushing him when he tried once again to enthuse his brother. Fili’s brow furrowed in thought, and Bilbo started thinking, too—thinking of ways to assuage his young guest’s worries and still get Mr Bofur into the hobbit hole as quickly as possible.

“Well, now,” he said. “What about this? I will go and talk to this Mr Bofur, but I will not tell him about the two of you. And if I think he is trustworthy, I will bring him back here. You can look out of the window and see him coming, so that you will know he is truly Mr Bofur. And I will leave Ham here to look after you. How does that sound?”

Fili considered this proposal for a long moment, then nodded slowly.

“All right,” he said. “We’ll stay here.”

“But I want to see Mr Bofur!” Kili said in a loud whisper. “I want to see him! I like Mr Bofur!”

“Sh,” Fili said absently. Kili’s face crumpled.

“I want to see him,” he said again, and then turned to Bilbo. “Please, Mr Bilbo. Can I come? I’ll be very quiet and I won’t say anything at all and I won’t get muddy!”

“You’ll see him, don’t worry,” Bilbo said. “I will bring him back here directly, and you’ll see him when he arrives. You will just need to have a little patience.”

But apparently patience was not something Kili could supply in these particular circumstances. His eyes began to fill with tears, and he started forward as if to cling to Bilbo’s leg, only to be stymied by Fili’s grip on his hand.

“No, don’t go without us,” he said, voice rising into a tone that was half-pleading, half-whining. “Don’t go, don’t leave us here. I want to see Mr Bofur. I want my Mama, what if he’s brought Mama with him? I want to see her!”

“He hasn’t brought Mama,” Fili said, sounding strained. “Don’t be stupid. You’ll see him anyway, Mr Bilbo’s bringing him here.”

The effect of this statement was rather the opposite of what Fili must surely have hoped, for it caused Kili to burst into silent tears. Bilbo, quite at sea as to why the appearance of the longed-for Mr Bofur should result in such histrionics, looked helplessly up at Ham, who only shrugged.

“There, don’t be foolish,” Bilbo ventured, and tried to give Kili a hug. But the little dwarf pushed him away, and instead clung to his brother—the very brother who had just caused his misery, so far as Bilbo could tell.

“Mama,” he moaned. “Mama, Mama.”

“Sh,” Fili whispered. “Sh, it’s all right. Mr Bilbo’s going to bring Mr Bofur and then we can go home soon.” He looked up at Bilbo, and Bilbo nodded, getting to his feet.

“Well, then,” he said, “that is what I shall do.”

****

It was quiet in the Green Dragon when Bilbo arrived—being still early in the afternoon, with only a few old hobbits idling their time away by the fire. But there was an air of unaccustomed excitement, even so—an air which only grew more palpable when Bilbo stepped through the door.

“Mr Bilbo Baggins!” cried Tolman Cotton, who was minding the bar. “We have all been waiting for you.”

“Have you, indeed?” Bilbo said, feeling a little taken aback to be suddenly the centre of attention—even if it was only the attention of a small group of hobbits with nothing better to do with their time. Well—a small group of hobbits, and one dwarf, who rose from his seat by the fire and smiled broadly at Bilbo.

“Ah, so this is the Mr Baggins I have heard so much about, is it?” he asked, making a sweeping bow. “Bofur, at your service!”

Bilbo responded with a rather awkward bow of his own. “Bilbo Baggins, at yours and your family’s,” he said, and then paused and eyed the dwarf up and down. He was, as Hamfast had said, dark-haired and smiling, with a sparkle in his eye and rather a lot of hair on his face. He was tall—taller than most hobbits, at any rate, although Bilbo did not know if he was tall for a dwarf, having never met any other adult dwarves before. When he saw Bilbo inspecting him, his smile broadened further, and he held out his arms and turned around, as if to put himself entirely on display.

“Here I am,” he said. “I received your letter, and since I happened to be passing by Bree, I thought I would come and see you in person—and meet your two lads, of course. And I must say, the pipe-weed in this part of the world is quite astounding.”

Bilbo—rather a devotee of pipe-weed himself—found himself immediately put at his ease. “Oh, indeed,” he said. “I am glad you’ve had a chance to partake. And have you had anything to eat? I’m sure I could provide something.”

“Very kind, very kind,” Bofur said. “And the lads?” He stopped, suddenly, seeming to stumble over his words. “Your sons, I mean. The little hobbits—I should like to meet them, very much.”

“My sons,” Bilbo said. “Yes, of course. They are at home—or at least, that is where I left them, although they are rather mischievous and they do not always stay where they’re put!”

Bofur laughed uproariously at that. “Well, and I know some other lads who are very much the same,” he said, winking at Bilbo. And Bilbo, sure now that this Mr Bofur must have understood the message in his letter clearly, would have winked back, had it not been for the fact that winking was really not something he tended to indulge in.

“Well, come then,” he said. “Let us find you some food, after you’ve come so far to see me.”

So he led Mr Bofur out into the weak sunshine of the winter’s afternoon. It was some distance from the Green Dragon to Bag End, and as they walked, talking about little inconsequential things and not mentioning children at all, Bilbo found himself becoming more and more surprised. He had never met an adult dwarf before, of course, but he had still had an idea that they would be rather wild and savage—rather like Fili when he was in one of his more aggressive moods. Yet this Mr Bofur was all charm and cheerfulness, more like Kili if anything, though decidedly less prone to flights of irrational running around after insects and other undesirable creatures. Of course, Kili was a dwarf, too, but Bilbo found he had been rather supposing that Kili was so light-hearted because he was so very young, and that older dwarves were more serious and—well, more like Fili. But here, apparently, he had been wrong, and he found himself quite pleased to have been so. It would be easier, he thought, to give up his two little guests to a smiling, warm creature like Mr Bofur than to someone wild and unpredictable.

And at that, he felt a sudden pang in his heart. It was quite unexpected, and it took him a moment to locate its source. He had, after all, thought so many times about finding the children’s friends and seeing them safely home, so that he could have his own peaceful life back. And now, here was his chance, and perhaps they would even be gone this very day. And yet, suddenly the thought made him feel quite melancholy, and even rather depressed, and he hoped that Bofur would stay a little while before taking the children away. How far away was their home? He had seen Ered Luin on the map, of course, and had spent some time trying to calculate how long it might take his letter to get there—a week, certainly, at least. A week of travelling, outside the Shire, at that. Would he be able to visit the children, or they him? He had often had ideas about leaving the Shire in search of elves and adventure when he had been a younger hobbit, but had long since dismissed them as flights of youthful fancy. Now, the very idea seemed almost impossible. But then, if he were not to leave, would he never see Fili and Kili again?

Bilbo paused in his steps at this thought, feeling suddenly quite desolate. Mr Bofur paused, too, looking back at him.

“Something the matter?” he asked.

“Hm?” Bilbo asked, and at that moment, he was on the verge of explaining—of asking if Mr Bofur was thinking to take the children away that very day, or if perhaps they could have a little time to say goodbye. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask this, and then he remembered—seeing Bag End in the distance—that he had promised Fili he would not speak about them until he had permission. It seemed rather ridiculous now, since Mr Bofur quite clearly knew why Bilbo had written his letter and had come for exactly the reason Bilbo hoped, but still—but still. He had made a promise, and he felt he ought to keep it. So he only coughed and shook his head.

“Oh, no,” he said. “I was thinking of something else.”

Mr Bofur gave him something of a speculative look, but he held his peace, and the two of them climbed the hill together in companionable silence. As they drew nearer to Bag End, however, Bilbo noticed something rather odd: Hamfast was kneeling down outside, beside the door, for all the world as though he was gardening, though of course it was the middle of the winter and thus entirely unseasonal.

“Hello,” Bilbo said once they were close enough to speak. “What are you up to, Ham?”

Hamfast jumped to his feet, hands fluttering nervously in front of him. “Oh, I was just—looking at your soil, Mr Bilbo,” he said. “For quality, you see. To see how the bulbs are coming up, and the like.”

“Were you, indeed?” Bilbo asked, feeling a hint of unease in his stomach. “An odd time to be doing so, don’t you think?”

“Ah, well, no time like the present, as my old dad likes to say,” Ham said. “Aye, and I was meaning to tell you, too—your wife left a message for you.”

“My--” Bilbo said, frowning in confusion. But then he recognised the hint of urgency in Ham’s expression, how he was standing, not as though he was at ease, but as though he was trying to pretend he was. “My wife?” Bilbo continued, trying not to draw attention to his hesitation. “What did she say?”

“She has taken the boys over to her sister’s, and she was that annoyed with you for forgetting they were supposed to go and inviting Mr Bofur over to meet them,” Ham said, blinking rather too rapidly. “She’ll bring them back in an hour or two, so she says.”

Bilbo felt quite flummoxed at this. It was clear to him that Ham was trying to send him some kind of message, but what that message was, he could not decipher. The uneasiness in his stomach grew stronger, and he nodded, then glanced at Mr Bofur, who looked quite unconcerned.

“Ah, a shame,” he said. “But I hope I will still have the chance to meet them?”

“Oh, certainly,” Bilbo said. “You must come in and wait.” He frowned at Ham. “She will be back soon, you say?”

“In an hour or two, I’m sure,” Ham said, shifting from foot to foot. “And now that I’ve told you, Mr Bilbo, I must be getting along, only my ma’ll be wondering where I have got to.”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Bilbo said, opening the door and ushering Mr Bofur in. Before he stepped over the threshold himself, he glanced back at Ham—though he could not ask the question he wanted, for Mr Bofur was only just inside the door, and it was clear that Ham wanted to keep something from him. He raised his eyebrows, but Ham only shook his head, then nodded at Mr Bofur and shook his head again. And at that, Bilbo felt a cold sort of worry start to seep into his heart. Because, of course, he had told Fili to look out of the window and see for himself that Mr Bofur was who he said he was—but now here they were, and the children were nowhere to be seen, and Ham was coming up with outlandish stories about their whereabouts. Then could it be...?

“I’ll be seeing you, then,” Ham said, with one last warning look, and then hurried off down the hill. Bilbo, watching him go, felt at a loss for what to do next. Where were the children, then? Had they been taken away somewhere?

“Do all hobbits live inside hills, Mr Baggins?” asked Mr Bofur from inside, and Bilbo started and turned, trying not to look guilty.

“Oh—well, yes, yes, for the most part,” he said. “Certainly all the hobbits in Hobbiton do, although there are some rather queer hobbits further afield, you know.”

“Oh, aye,” Mr Bofur said with a laugh. “That’s true of dwarves, as well.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Bilbo said, feeling quite distracted. “Well—oh, yes, please, let me take your cloak. Oh, do sit down. I will find something for you to eat—you must be quite famished.”

“Truth be told, I already ate at the inn,” Bofur said. “But I won’t say no.”

“No, indeed,” Bilbo said. “After all, that was a little while ago, now.”

He hurried off to the kitchen, keeping an eye out for any sign of the dwarves—but, apart from the toys that appeared to have been abandoned on the living room floor, there was nothing to be seen. Nothing, that was, until he opened the pantry door, and found himself face to face with Fili’s sword.

Bilbo clapped his hand over his mouth, stifling a squeak. Fili stood, pale and trembling, but furious-faced, sword clasped in both hands and held out in front of him. Behind him, Kili cowered in the darkness between two barrels, clutching at the back of his brother’s shirt, eyes huge in the dim light. Bilbo swallowed, heart hammering in his throat, then drew a deep breath and stepped fully inside, pulling the door mostly closed. He stood for a moment, staring down at the dwarves, and they stared up at him, and did not speak.

“Then am I to take it that that is not your Mr Bofur?” Bilbo murmured at last, so quietly he could barely hear it himself.

Fili shook his head quickly, and Kili began to cry, silent tears running down his face. Bilbo, unable to bear such a sight—to be the cause of such a sight, for it was he who had concocted the plan of bringing the purported Mr Bofur into his home without any idea of what to do if he turned out to be an impostor—reached out to comfort him. But Kili only scuttled back into the shadows, and Fili shouldered his way between the two of them.

Bilbo stood, at a loss. It seemed to him that this was not simply a case of the children being frightened of a stranger. This was not simply a dwarf they did not know—this was a dwarf who had intentionally pretended to be someone he was not. And who had mentioned wanting to meet the lads several times. Bilbo blood began to run cold.

“Do you know that dwarf?” he asked, very quietly.

Fili nodded, and the look in his eyes was so cold it made Bilbo shiver a little. And Bilbo began to understand—not everything, but enough.

“Stay here,” he murmured. “Don’t make a sound. You may need to wait for some time.”

He picked up the food he had come for, then ducked his head to peer at Kili’s huddled form in the shadows.

“I will not let him hurt you,” he murmured. “Don’t be afraid, my lad.”

But Kili only stared, eyes glassy with tears, and Bilbo swallowed and felt frightened and angry and very, very sorry that he had brought this dwarf into his home. He took his food, and slipped away, closing the door quietly and then staring at it for a moment, wondering what to do next. It was all very well to tell Kili that he would protect him, but how? He did not even know what it was he needed to protect the children from—only that they were terrified, and he was responsible, however unintentionally. But then, what was it they were terrified of? Of this dwarf, who was claiming to be someone he was not. And why were they terrified of him? Because they knew him, and because they believed he was going to try and hurt them. And why did they think that?

Because he had hurt them before.

Bilbo felt a sudden, cold certainty, and although he understood very little of how this had all come to be—how had this dwarf come to read the letter Bilbo had sent to Mr Bofur, and how had he understood the message that had been so well hidden within it? -- it suddenly mattered very little when compared to the urgency he felt to get this dwarf out of his hobbit hole and very, very far away. But how? At that moment in time, Bilbo felt the urge to seize a frying pan and lay about the dwarf until he turned tail and ran, but, furious as he suddenly was, he knew he could not afford to be hasty. The dwarf was most likely far more able to hurt Bilbo than vice versa, and if Bilbo should be defeated, his young guests would be defenceless. No—no. Bilbo had to find a way to convince the dwarf that there was nothing here to interest him, that he should leave of his own accord and never, ever think to come back. He must convince him that the secret message in the letter had not been there at all—that Bilbo simply was a hobbit with two sons who wanted marvellous toys. Clearly, Hamfast had been thinking along the same lines when Bilbo had seen him at the door. But it was all very well to claim that one’s imaginary wife had taken one’s imaginary sons to her imaginary sister’s, and quite another to produce said sons in a convincing fashion.

“Anything I can help with?” said the dwarf, and Bilbo started, turning to find him standing in the kitchen doorway.

“Oh,” Bilbo said, and then had to clear his throat, looking anywhere but at the pantry door. “Oh, certainly not! I wouldn’t dream of it—you are my guest, and hobbits are very particular about hospitality, you know.”

“Are they, indeed?” the dwarf said, smiling in a way that suddenly looked less charming and more sinister.

“Yes, yes, indeed we are,” Bilbo said. “If you would please go back to the living room and make yourself at home. I will be there directly.”

To his relief, the dwarf did as he asked, and he took a brief moment to close his eyes and try to calm the hammering of his heart. It was clear to him that there would be no quick way to get this dwarf out of his hobbit hole without him suspecting anything—perhaps no way at all, for Bilbo had not yet invented any kind of plan. But if he was to divert suspicion, he must behave just as a hobbit with a welcome guest, much though it pained him to do so. And so, he set about making lunch.

****

Lunch was one thing, but small talk, Bilbo found, was much more difficult to accomplish when faced with a conversational partner who in turn terrified and infuriated him. Where before, he had been charmed by the dwarf’s cheerful smile and easy manner, now he found himself having to suppress a shudder each time he contemplated how easily the dwarf had tricked his way into Bilbo’s home, and what might have happened had the children not been looking out of the window to see him. What he wanted with them, Bilbo did not know—but the fact that he wanted anything at all, and that he was willing to resort to deceit to get it, had Bilbo’s every instinct screaming to seize that frying pan and begin belabouring. But he did not: instead, he served tea and soup with bread, and cake for afters, and did his very best to look cheerful himself, and tried not to think about Fili and Kili, huddled in the pantry as time ticked on.

“You must be exhausted after such a long journey,” he said, wondering for the fifteenth time how he was to get this dwarf to leave and never come back.

“Oh, not so very long,” the dwarf said. “As I have said, I was passing through Bree anyway.”

“Oh, of course,” Bilbo said. “Do you travel a great deal, then?”

“Some times more than others,” the dwarf said. “These last few months, yes, indeed. I have been out and about a great deal.” He gave Bilbo a meaningful look. “There’s more to do in the day than there is time,” he said. “I really could use a couple of lads to help me out.”

“No doubt,” Bilbo said, endeavouring to maintain a placid expression with no hint of understanding any message other than the most superficial one. “I’m sure it is very hard.”

The dwarf’s eyebrow twitched a little, but his smile did not falter.

“And what about your lads, then, Mr Baggins?” he asked. “How old are they?”

Put on the spot, Bilbo found himself frozen in indecision. Had he said how old they were in the letter? Had he hinted? He could give the ages that he guessed Kili and Fili to be, but surely it would be better to give quite different ages, so as to prevent more connections being drawn between himself and the young dwarves. He found himself suddenly acutely aware of the knife-edge along which he walked—the children, just in the next room, hidden by nothing more than an unlocked door, and this dwarf, who intended—what? Something terrible, no doubt. Bilbo’s poor hobbit heart quailed to think that anyone, let alone someone who was sitting in his own living room, might mean to harm two such defenceless children, but the truth was, they had been harmed, by at least one person and most probably more, and now it was Bilbo’s responsibility to see that they were not harmed again. Oh, how was he to know what to do?

But he was saved from answering the question by the sound of the front door opening, and then Rose’s voice calling through from the hall.

“Bilbo, darling,” she called. “I hope your guest is still here?”

And she came bustling in, all smiles, and—to Bilbo’s astonishment—kissed him soundly on the cheek. Even more surprising were the hobbits she brought with her—two of her own sons, whose names Bilbo had forgotten, though he had certainly once known them. One was perhaps eight years old, the other closer to six, and both looked alight with suppressed excitement.

“Well!” Rose said, turning to the dwarf. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your guest?”

But before Bilbo had a chance to do so, she spoke on. “I’m terribly sorry about my husband—he is a little rude sometimes, but it’s just because he is always thinking about something or other, isn’t it, my dear? So many flights of fancy! Well, I am Rose, and these are our boys, Fredegar—Freddie—and Posco. And you must be Mr Bofur, of course—Bilbo told me he had written to you, and I told him you would certainly never write back, but here you are! How unexpected. I hope he has offered you some tea?”

The dwarf, who had risen to his feet at Rose’s arrival, looked a little overwhelmed. But there was something else in his expression, too—something quickly hidden, but which Bilbo nonetheless saw. A flash of disappointment and irritation, smothered by a cheerful smile as he turned to Rose’s children.

“Ah, these are the two boys I’ve heard so much about, are they?” the dwarf said. “Well, you two are much bigger than I expected! How old are you?”

“Eight and three quarters!” cried Freddie. “But Posco’s only just seven, and he’s small for his age.”

“No, I’m not!” Posco cried. “And I’ve been seven for ages!”

“Only seven and eight and such big lads already?” the dwarf said. “Why, I thought you were twenty-five, at least, and you certainly over twenty.”

Both boys burst out laughing at this, and Rose turned a look of some surprise on the dwarf.

“Twenty?” she asked. “Why, twenty is almost an adult!”

The dwarf laughed, then, but although his cheerful demeanour seemed unchanged, there was something slightly impatient about him now that had not been there before. “Oh, among dwarves twenty is very much still a child,” he said. “But, now, Mr Baggins, these are your wee lads, then?”

“Oh, yes, indeed,” Bilbo said. “They’re good boys, most of the time.”

“Daddy, can we go and play?” Freddie said to Bilbo, and Bilbo was briefly startled to be thus addressed, but recovered quickly with the help of a pointed look from Rose.

“Indeed you may,” he said.

“Go and play in your room, sweethearts,” Rose said, and Freddie nodded eagerly and seized his brother by the hand, towing him out into the hall. When they got there, Bilbo saw, they made their way immediately into the dwarves’ room, as if they had known in advance where to go.

“Hm,” the dwarf said, staring after them with a frown. But then he seemed to come to himself, and smiled broadly at Bilbo. “Well, I mustn’t keep you—I’m sure you have things to be doing.”

“Oh, but you must stay for supper, after coming so far,” Rose said. Bilbo bit back a sharp remark—because of course, no matter how sick he felt at the idea that the dwarf might stay any longer, he had to allay any and all suspicions—but the dwarf shook his head, still smiling.

“I must be getting on,” he said. “It was very nice to meet you both—and your lads, of course.”

And, with a sweeping bow, he began to make his way towards the hall. Bilbo followed him, finding himself extremely aware of everything that was happening in the house—Rose’s two children in the dwarves’ room, the strange dwarf looking around himself with interest—oh, he could not decide to stay now, Bilbo’s heart would not bear it—and, most important of all, the two little dwarves, huddled in the pantry. It was all enough to make Bilbo’s head sing with tension, and his shoulders and back felt stiff with it. But the dwarf was moving towards the door, and Bilbo had only one goal in mind: to get him out, out out out, as far away as possible, and to have him never so much as glance back towards Bag End.

“Oh, well,” he found himself saying, hearing the words as if they came from somewhere outside his body, “if you must go—but how nice of you to visit. How very nice! Yes, indeed!”

“Now, dear,” Rose murmured behind him—he had not realised she was following, and so was rather startled -- “you’re a little shrill.”

Bilbo laughed, and it came out as rather a hysterical squeak. Thankfully, the dwarf seemed not to notice, and Rose slipped past him and stood by the door, looking completely unconcerned.

“Do call again if you happen to be passing,” she said. “And I’m sure Bilbo will write to you about the toy.”

“Oh yes, the toy!” Bilbo said, and the dwarf seemed to remember it at the same moment.

“Ah, I should have said something,” he said. “I think I have exactly the thing, but in my workshop in Ered Luin. I will send it to you as soon as I get home.”

“Oh—let me pay you --” Bilbo started, but the dwarf waved his hand.

“I trust you to send the money on once you’ve received it,” he said, and then smiled. “And after all, if you don’t, I can always come back here, now I know where you live.”

Bilbo felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck. Rose nudged him hard in the ribs, and he realised something of the horror he was feeling must have shown in his face. “Oh, haha,” he said. “Haha, yes, very good.”

“Well, goodbye, then,” Rose said. “Take care on the road—I hear tell there are a great number of dangerous people abroad these days.”

“It’s not so bad as all that,” the dwarf said. “Or at least, I have never had any trouble. Farewell, then, good hobbits—and say farewell to those jolly lads of yours on my behalf.”

“We will!” Rose said, waving and elbowing Bilbo again until he waved, too. The dwarf gave them one last grin—a sinister one, at least to Bilbo’s mind—and then began to saunter down the path towards the gate, whistling a jaunty tune. Bilbo smiled and waved until the dwarf had turned the corner and begun to walk down the hill, and then he stepped back into the hallway and closed the door firmly. He leaned his forehead against it, feeling quite faint.

“Oh,” he whispered. “Oh, dear.”

“There, now,” Rose said, laying a hand on his shoulder. “He is gone.”

Bilbo turned sharply towards her. “Did you hear him? He knows where I live! What if he comes back!”

Rose nodded. “I will stay here with my boys for as long as necessary,” she said. “But of course the little dwarves must remain hidden until there is no chance that he will return and peep into the windows.”

Bilbo gaped at her. “Excuse me?” he asked, and then, “How did you even know to come here?”

“Oh, as to that,” Rose said, “Ham Gamgee came to find me, and he was in quite a dreadful state of excitement. He told me all about your letter, and the dwarf that had come, and how, as soon as little Fili and Kili saw him coming up the hill, they were so terrified that it quite broke his heart to witness it. And he said he’d been thinking and thinking and he thought the only way out of it was to pretend you really did have two little sons. And so I said, well, I can certainly provide two, if he needs them. Lily and I planned it all out—I would have come sooner, only she insisted that we had to know exactly what it was we would do before plunging in, or we would only make things worse. And of course I had to tell Freddie and Posco and tell them over again and again to make sure that they got it right.”

“Oh,” Bilbo whispered again, feeling a sudden, extraordinary rush of grateful affection for Rose and her sister, and for Hamfast Gamgee, too. Indeed, he was so overcome that he could not even speak, but only embraced Rose tightly and felt tears rising to his eyes.

“There, there,” Rose said. She seemed quite serious, now, in a way that Bilbo had rarely seen her. “There is no need to thank me. We cannot be having child-snatchers wandering about the Shire without so much as a by-your-leave. And those two little dears have been through quite enough.”

“Child-snatcher,” Bilbo said, feeling the words stick in his throat. “You think he came here to steal them away?”

“Why, what other reason could he have had?” Rose asked. “Certainly he did not come to wish them well.” Her face hardened. “And if he does come back, we will have to teach him that his sort are not welcome here.” She patted his arm. “Now, you look a dreadful state, Bilbo, my dear. Come, I will make you something to eat. And you must go and comfort your dwarves, for I’m sure they are quite terrified. But they must not come out of hiding yet, remember!”

Well, Bilbo had been so overwhelmed with emotion that he had almost forgotten that the dwarves did not yet know that they were safe. But now that Rose reminded him, he felt an overpowering urge to go and see them, to make sure they were still safe—after all, even though they had only been hiding in the pantry, he had come to realise that they (and Kili especially) were quite capable of getting themselves into trouble even in such innocuous surroundings. So he turned to go, but as he was stepping through the kitchen door, he was struck suddenly by how much his life had changed. Strange, child-snatching dwarves in his own, safe, homely Bag End? Why, it was quite impossible, and if Bilbo had been told a few months ago that such a thing would happen, he would not have believed it.

“Oh, dear,” he murmured to himself. “What have I got myself into?”

But no-one answered, and Bilbo took a deep breath and went to look after his dwarves.

Chapter Text

When Bilbo opened the door to the pantry, it was to find himself confronted once more with the sharp end of Fili’s sword. This time, however, he was prepared (although still a little unnerved), and he slipped inside and closed the door behind him, then set the lamp he was carrying on a shelf.

“There,” he said, “I have brought you a light.” He paused, trying not to think of how long the two little dwarves had been hiding in complete darkness. “And that dwarf is gone from the hobbit hole. You are safe now.”

Fili stared up at him, his eyes sharp with fury. “Gone where?” he whispered. “How do you know he’s gone properly?”

“As to that, I’m afraid I do not, just yet,” Bilbo said. “It would be better if the two of you stayed in here for a little while longer, until we can be sure that he is far away and will not be coming back.”

Fili just stared, and Bilbo stared back for a moment, then tried to see where Kili was. The most he could see of him was a vague shadow of hair and the tips of some dirty fingers clutching at his brother’s shoulder. He sighed.

“You don’t need to be frightened any more,” he said, perhaps to Kili and perhaps in general. But Fili just scowled at him.

“Did you tell him we were here?” he asked.

“What?” Bilbo said. “Of course I did not! Why would I do such a thing?”

Fili’s glare did not subside. “How did he know to come and look for us here?” he asked. “Someone must have told him.”

“He had the letter,” Bilbo said. “The letter to Mr Bofur. That’s how he knew—though how he was able to interpret it, I do not know.” He became aware that Fili had not lowered his sword, and suddenly felt very tired. So tired, in fact, that he did not care to stand up any more, but instead sat down with a bump. He felt on the verge of tears for some reason, but he swallowed hard and was able to contain himself. “I am very sorry,” he said. “I am so sorry to have brought him here. I thought he was your Mr Bofur—I truly thought he was. But I should never have brought him here, certainly not before making absolutely sure. I am so sorry to have put you both in danger.”

Fili stared at him in silence, eyes large in the dim light of the lamp. He lowered his sword a little, and although he was still scowling, there was a little less of fury and a little more of worry and fear in his face now.

Bilbo nodded, thinking about everything the young dwarf had said, everything he had heard and not listened to. “I thought you were being foolish,” he said. “But I was wrong. I should have paid more attention to how frightened you were.”

Fili swallowed. “I’m not frightened,” he said, voice cracking a little.

“Of course not,” Bilbo said. “Of course. But I—I think I am rather frightened, master dwarf. I am very concerned, certainly. I am very concerned to keep you and your brother safe, and I promise I will not underestimate the danger to you again. I will do everything I can to make sure you are both safe. I promise.”

Fili made no acknowledgement of this, but he lowered his sword fully now, and wiped the back of his hand quickly across his eyes before putting it behind his back. There was a slight movement behind him, and Bilbo felt sure that Kili had taken his hand.

“I’m afraid you will need to stay in here for a little while longer,” Bilbo said. He looked around at the shadowy pantry, normally a cheerful place—after all, it was full of food—but looking somehow tall and full of an odd menace from his position on the floor. “I’ll bring you some cushions.”

“Kili’s cold,” Fili said. “He’s not supposed to get cold.”

“Oh—of course,” Bilbo said, for the air in the pantry was quite cool. “Blankets as well, then.” He had a sort of swelling feeling in his heart which he identified after a moment as an urge to do something more, provide some better comfort than simply a few apologetic words and a blanket or two. But he did not think Fili would take very kindly to being hugged at that moment, and Kili was inaccessible behind him, and so he simply swallowed against the swelling and clambered to his feet, dusting himself off. “I’ll be back soon,” he said, and slipped out again.

Once outside the pantry, he hurried to collect as many cushions and blankets as he could, ignoring Rose’s questions until she sat silently and waited. When he could carry nothing more, he went back into the pantry, only to find the situation in no way changed. Fili accepted his offerings silently, but made no move towards him and did not put down his sword, though he did not raise it, either. Of Kili, there was again almost no sign. And so Bilbo, after a long moment of contemplating whether he might be able to do anything more, found himself once more in the kitchen, his heart pained with both fear and guilt.

“You look quite dreadful,” said Rose behind him, making him jump—for he had rather forgotten her presence. “Here, sit down. I’ll make you some tea.”

“I don’t think tea will help very much,” Bilbo said, but he sank onto a bench anyway, feeling abruptly too tired to stand.

“Oh, nonsense,” Rose said. “There is no problem that cannot be improved with a little tea, that’s what I always say. And I will send Freddie to fetch my sister. She’s a good one for thinking, my sister, and it seems we may be needing a little of that rather soon.”

And so, Bilbo sat and stewed as Rose bustled about making tea and toast. Lily arrived, and they all sat down at the table, sipping their tea in silence, until at last, Lily spoke.

“This dwarf,” she said. “Who was he, if not the one you sent for?”

“That I do not know,” Bilbo said. “Someone who was known to the children, certainly. Someone who had treated them poorly before.” He groaned, putting his head in his hands. “And I invited him into our home without so much as a second thought.”

“There, there,” Rose said, patting his arm. “You weren’t to know. After all, one dwarf looks very much like another.”

“I may have only met three dwarves, but even I can say that that is quite untrue,” Lily said. “But now, my sister is right. You did not know, and now the thing is done, and we must consider how to deal with it as best we can. Why do you not ask the dwarves who he was?”

“They are barely speaking to me,” Bilbo said. “Kili is terrified and Fili is—well, I think he is very angry with me, and no wonder. I have spent so much time thinking him rather foolish for being so afraid that someone was out looking for them. Two such ragged litte creatures with no-one in the world but each other, well! I did not think anyone could care enough to take such trouble to find them, excepting their family, of course. And here I was so very wrong, and have put them in such great danger, that I shouldn’t wonder if he never speaks to me again.”

“There’s no need to be so dramatic,” Lily said, rather impatiently, Bilbo thought. “Young Master Fili may not be so very fond of you at this moment, but you have done a great deal for both those lads, and I have no doubt he will remember that, given enough time. But you must ask him who that dwarf was. Or the little one, he may be more likely to tell you.”

“I can hardly ask Kili behind Fili’s back,” Bilbo said. “That would just make everything worse. And Fili is very stubborn—I can hardly get a word out of him regarding their past.”

“Then you must try harder,” Lily declared. “Surely he must see now that it is important for us to know, if we are to be able to help them properly.”

“Not to mention, I do rather want to know,” Rose added, and then, when Lily frowned at her, “Oh, now, sister, don’t pretend you aren’t curious as well. But of course our first thought must be for their safety, and the safety of all of the rest of us, besides. We cannot have dangerous dwarves simply wandering around without so much as a by-your-leave! Why, I think we must make sure that if any dwarf so much as crosses the boundaries of the Shire again, we will find out about it straight away, so that we can make preparations.”

“Preparations for what?” Lily asked. “What do you propose to do against an armed dwarf?”

“Well, I might not be the strongest hobbit, but I think I know how to hide behind a tree and hit someone with a stick,” Rose said.

“Or a frying pan,” Bilbo put in, wondering if perhaps he should have employed this method in the first place. Perhaps he might not have succeeded, but on the other hand, perhaps he might have done, and the dwarves would now be safe in front of the fire rather than huddled in the pantry.

Lily raised her eyebrows, but before she could speak, there was a sharp knock at the door. All three hobbits jumped to their feet, and then looked at each other, faces grim.

“Are Freddie and Posco still here?” Bilbo asked, looking to make sure the pantry door was firmly closed.

“Posco, certainly,” Rose said. “I sent Freddie to find Ham Gamgee.”

The knock came again, and this time it was accompanied by someone calling through the door—and that someone was no other than Ham Gamgee himself. “Mr Bilbo,” he called. “Are you in there?”

Bilbo hurried to the door, heart thudding rather painfully in his chest. On the other side, Ham stood, out of breath and rosy-cheeked in the cold air.

“He’s gone, Mr Bilbo,” he said. “I sent our Andy to my cousin in Bywater, and he just sent back word saying he saw that dwarf marching through, going towards Bree, and no sign of turning back. He’ll keep a watch for him, so he says, in case he changes his mind.”

Bilbo felt a wave of relief that was quite disorienting. “Thank goodness,” he said, and stepped back from the door, allowing Ham to pass through. Lily, standing in the living room, nodded firmly and then began closing the curtains.

“No sense in being careless,” she said. “We wouldn’t want just anyone able to look in. And besides, it’s almost dark.”

So it was—the whole afternoon had disappeared since Bilbo had brought the dwarf back from the Green Dragon, and now the last of the sun had disappeared behind the hill, leaving only a shivering pale blue sky in its wake. And Bilbo suddenly felt a great urgency to extract the little dwarves from their hiding place, that was so dark and cold and lacking in any kind of comfort or cheer.

“Have some tea,” he said to Ham, but did not pause to pour it himself—a terrible neglect of manners in most circumstances, but perhaps forgiveable in these ones—and instead went straight to the pantry door, opening it and sliding through. Inside, Fili was huddled in a blanket, Kili barely distinguishable as a lump by his side.

“Now,” Bilbo said, kneeling on the floor and trying not to think about how cold it was, “that dwarf is well away from here, and you two can come out and sit by the fire. Are you all right?”

Fili stared at him, eyes shadowed. “Kili’s cold,” he said. “How do you know he’s gone?”

“Because a friend of mine saw him go,” Bilbo said. “Will you come out?”

Fili hesitated. “Who’s out there?” he asked. “I heard you talking.”

“Rose and Lily, and Ham Gamgee,” Bilbo said. “I think one of Rose’s sons is still here, too. No-one else.” He waited, but when Fili did not speak, he sighed. “Please,” he said. “The fire is warm, and your brother shouldn’t be in the cold for long.”

This was enough to get Fili’s attention—as Bilbo had known it would be—and he ducked his head under the blanket and whispered for a moment or two, before reappearing.

“You’re certain he’s gone?” he asked.

“Quite certain,” Bilbo said. He started to apologise again, and then stopped. He would wait, he decided, until he could see Kili’s face, so he could be properly contrite.

Fili nodded, face bleak. He tried to pick up both Kili and his sword, and failed rather miserably, tangling himself in the blankets in the process.

“Here,” Bilbo said, stretching out his arms. “Let me take him.”

He thought Fili would refuse, but to his surprise, the young dwarf frowned for a moment, then instead held out his sword.

“He’s scared,” he said. “He’s been dreaming, so he won’t want you touching him. But you can take this and if you see anyone bad, you can stab them.”

Bilbo felt rather incapable of stabbing anyone, be they the most dastardly dwarf in the world, but he was so surprised by Fili’s willingness to hand over his sword that he simply nodded and took it, trying to hold it as though he might have some sort of knowledge of how to use it. Fili watched him for a moment, then wrapped his brother more carefully in the blanket and hoisted him against his hip.

“We’re going out now,” he said quietly. “He’s gone, so we’re safe.” And then he murmured something in that dwarf language.

“No, I don’t want to,” Kili whispered, voice hoarse. “Don’t, I don’t want to. I want to stay here, don’t take me away.”

“It’ll be nicer by the fire,” Fili said. “Sh, now. You’re dreaming.”

“I’m not dreaming,” Kili said, but he laid his head on Fili’s shoulder, and clung to him, and made no more protests. Fili, stumbling a little, followed Bilbo out of the pantry, and blinked in the brighter light of the kitchen.

“Come into the living room,” Bilbo said. “You’ll be more comfortable there.”

Once there, he wasted no time dragging a large armchair over to the fire, and settling both dwarves into it. Kili was still barely visible, wrapped in blankets and hiding his face in Fili’s shoulder. But when Bilbo came back with tea and bread-and-honey for them both, he peered out, serious-faced.

“Mr Bilbo,” he said, “did he hurt you?”

Bilbo set the tea down on a little table beside their chair, and then drew a chair up of his own. “No,” he said, heart aching at the solemn look in the child’s eyes. “He did not hurt me. And he has gone now, and I am very sorry for bringing him here.”

Kili just stared at him. “Is he coming back?” he asked.

“No, certainly not,” Bilbo said. “He has gone away, and he will not come back.”

Fili made a rather dissatisfied face. Kili, meanwhile, pressed himself deeper into the recesses of the armchair. He was clutching his doll to his chest like a talisman, Bilbo saw.

“When we go out to the woods again, can we take a blanket?” he asked. “It’s cold.”

“You’re not going out to the woods,” Bilbo said. “You’re going to stay here, where it’s safe.” But the dissatisfaction on Fili’s face grew, and Bilbo felt a sudden stir of worry in his already over-anxious mind. “Certainly you cannot be thinking of going out to the woods,” he added.

Fili’s mouth twitched. “It’s not safe here,” he said. “He knows where we are.”

“No, he does not,” Bilbo said. “No, not at all. He thinks I have two young hobbit sons, and he has not the first idea that the two of you are here.”

Fili’s expression didn’t change, and Kili tugged at his arm.

“Can we take my basket?” he asked. “Then we won’t get hungry.”

“You don’t have to take anything,” Bilbo said, beginning to feel a little panicked. “You mustn’t go anywhere. It is certainly not safe out there, and it’s cold, to boot.”

Fili ducked his head, hiding his eyes, but Kili turned to stare at Bilbo. “What if he comes back?” he said.

“I think that’s very unlikely,” Bilbo said. “As I said, now that he’s seen that there is no-one here but hobbits, this will be the last place he will look for the two of you. And even if he should come back—which he will not—you are much safer here, inside with me, than you would be if you were wandering out there alone.” He paused, swallowing at the thought of the two little dwarves out in the winter cold on their own. No, certainly he could not allow that, though how he could prevent it if Fili was determined, he was not sure. “Besides,” he said, “Kili’s not supposed to get cold.”

“No, indeed,” said another voice, and Bilbo started and turned to see Lily standing in the doorway. She came quickly into the room, and paused by the dwarves’ chair before kneeling carefully. “Breathe for me, child,” she said to Kili, and Kili, accustomed by now to being inspected, did so. Lily listened carefully, then nodded. “Well,” she said to Fili, “I’m afraid spending all those hours in the pantry has not been very good for your brother. He certainly cannot be allowed to go outside. Not for a good long while.”

Bilbo, who had not noticed anything amiss about Kili’s breathing, nonetheless pounced on this opportunity. “Well, then,” he said. “That’s settled.” But Fili only sat silent, and on his face was an expression of great trouble. Bilbo waited for some kind of response, and Lily waited too. But when it came, it was not from Fili at all.

“Are we going to the woods?” Kili asked, looking first at Fili, then at Bilbo. “Can we take a blanket?”

And Fili shook himself, and put a quick arm around his brother’s shoulders. “No,” he said. “We’re not going. We’re going to stay here, where it’s warm.” He frowned at Bilbo. “But—maybe we’ll have to hide. Maybe we could hide under the bed and—we could keep the room warm. We could have a fire.” He looked uncertainly at Bilbo. “Can we have a fire?”

“Oh, my dear master dwarf,” Bilbo said. “No, that will not do at all.” And then, seeing and understanding the look on Fili’s face, “No, I do not mean to say that you cannot have a fire, or anything else you need to keep yourselves warm and comfortable. Of course I do not mean that! But I mean—well, I mean that you do not have to hide—under the bed or anywhere else. We will find ways to keep anyone outside the Shire from knowing about you. That dwarf does not know—I promise you he does not.”

Fili just pulled Kili closer into his side, chewing his lip and looking very worried. Bilbo felt rather exhausted at the stubbornness of the child in persisting in his certainty that the dwarf had somehow known about them.

“Why will you not believe me?” he asked. “I saw that dwarf with my own eyes, and he was disappointed not to find you here and went on his way.”

Fili frowned and muttered something, and Bilbo leaned closer.

“What was that?” he asked.

“You said before no-one would come,” Fili said, louder now, and suddenly looking angry again. “You said. You didn’t believe me, you said I was being stupid. So—why are you right this time, if you were wrong before?”

Bilbo found himself lost for words, unable to answer this accusation which was, after all, unfortunately true. He stared at Fili for a moment or two, mouth agape, and then became aware that it was not merely Fili, but both dwarves who were watching him, waiting for his answer. Fili looked mutinous, but Kili just looked frightened, and Bilbo understood that he was the only one who could assuage that fear. The weight of it lay heavily upon his shoulders, he, a hobbit who not so very long ago had never had to worry about anyone else’s feelings but his own. But, heavy or not, it was his weight to bear, and he straightened up beneath it and cleared his throat.

“Well,” he said. “Well, yes, you are right. You are quite right, master dwarf, I should have paid more attention to you. I did not realise that you had such good reason for your fears. But now I see—certainly I do. And as I have said, I am sorry. I was wrong, and I am sorry for it, and I know that you are the ones who have suffered most for it. I wish it had not been so—wish I could have been the one to be hurt, if anyone had to be. But it seems that things rarely work the way that would be fairest, or make the most sense.” He sighed. “I am trying very hard, but I am not used to any of this—to having children around, and certainly not children who are in such a difficult situation. I’m afraid I am not doing very well. But I assure you I am trying, and I will keep on trying, and if I can do anything at all to make sure the two of you are safe, I will certainly do it.”

Fili’s expression deepened into a scowl. “Why?” he said. “You don’t even like us.”

Kili made a little noise of surprise. “Doesn’t Mr Bilbo like us?” he asked, in a half-whisper.

“Of course I like you!” Bilbo said, and found—somewhat to his surprise—that his incredulity at the accusation was not at all feigned. “I like you very much. Both of you! I am very fond of you and—well, I enjoy having you to stay here, even if you would prefer to be somewhere else. Yes, I certainly like you.”

Fili’s mouth twitched, and he looked as though he might burst into tears. Bilbo shook his head.

“Oh!” he said, feeling quite exasperated. “Why would you think I don’t like you?” But he remembered that he had been rather impatient with the dwarves at various times—though less and less so as time had gone on—and he did not know anything about how dwarves treated their children, and how his own actions might be interpreted. “Well, I do,” he said, aware that he sounded somewhat petulant. “I do like you, and that’s the end of it. And even if I didn’t like you, of course I would look after you. Two helpless children! How could I not?”

“We’re not helpless,” Fili said, and as if to prove it, his hand went to his sword where it was propped beside his chair.

“Well, perhaps not,” Bilbo said hastily. “Perhaps not, indeed. But certainly in need of help. And I will give it, if you will let me.”

“We all will,” Lily said from the armchair to which she had retired. “Hobbits can be foolish folk, but they will not see children in trouble, dwarves or no.”

“Hear, hear,” said Rose, and Bilbo saw that she had come quietly into the living room and was sitting near her sister. He nodded at her, and she smiled.

“Well, then,” Bilbo said, turning back to Fili. “We will all help you. Perhaps that dwarf would easily be able to overcome me, but he would not be able to take on a whole village worth of hobbits. We have a large number of frying pans between us, I assure you!”

“And besides, my cousin’s paying attention for whether he comes back,” Ham Gamgee put in—and Bilbo realised that somehow, while he had been paying attention to the dwarves, every hobbit in Bag End had appeared in the living room, with the exception of little Posco. “I’m going over there tonight, and I’ll stay up all night if needs be. I don’t want that dwarf back here any more than you do.”

“Thank you, Ham,” Bilbo said, feeling a sudden swelling of gratitude for good friends—friends he hadn’t even known were friends a month or two before. “Very kind.”

“You’ll make sure he doesn’t get us?” Fili asked—but he was not talking to Ham, but to Bilbo, and there was a quaver in his voice that belied his fierce expression.

“I will,” Bilbo said. “Whatever it may require of me.”

Fili swallowed, then nodded. “Then—we’ll stay here,” he said, and looked at Kili. “We’ll stay here, and we won’t go to the woods.”

Bilbo sat back, letting out a great sigh of relief. Kili looked relieved, too, but a moment later he turned to Bilbo.

“Mr Bilbo, is Mr Bofur still coming?” he asked. “I want to see him.”

Bilbo, looking at his hopeful face, felt a rather painful lump in his throat. “No,” he said. “I’m afraid not. At least—not for a while, certainly.”

Kili’s face crumpled, and he seemed to fold into himself, shrinking before Bilbo’s eyes into a tiny, huddled ball. “I thought he was coming,” he whispered, and then started to cry—somehow managing to sob violently while still making very little noise.

“Oh, dear,” Bilbo said, feeling somehow at fault for crushing the poor child’s hopes, even though it would hardly have been better to lie to him. Fili pulled Kili onto his lap and wrapped his arms around him, and Kili wept into his embrace, shoulders shuddering. Bilbo, feeling rather useless, got to his feet.

“I’ll make us something to eat,” he said.

****

In the end, Kili had very little to eat, being quite disconsolate all evening. He eventually stopped crying, but he remained silent and bleak, eyes red and sore. Fili tried to tempt him to eat something, but gave up after a while and just ate himself, awkwardly, since Kili was still on his lap and neither of them showed any inclination to alter that state of affairs. All in all, it was a quiet evening. Ham departed to go to his cousin’s house and keep watch, and Rose and Lily took Posco home, and then it was just the three of them. Of course, it had been just the three of them every evening for some time, but it had been a while since Bilbo had felt so tense and grim.

“Mr Bilbo,” Fili said, once they had finished eating, “can we sleep in your bed tonight? Kili might have a nightmare.”

“Of course,” Bilbo said, a little surprised, but not at all put out. Indeed, he was rather relieved—at least with the dwarves in the same room as him, he would be able to keep a close eye on them. Indeed, he rather doubted he would get very much sleep that night, anyway. He hoped, of course, that Kili would not have a nightmare—but was nonetheless unsurprised when he was woken from a doze by the little dwarf shrieking extremely close to his ear.

“No, no, no,” he cried. “No, Fili! No, they’re going to take me, I don’t want to! I don’t want to!”

“Bother,” Bilbo muttered. But he was not as inexperienced as once he had been, and between his murmured comfort and Fili’s tight embrace, they had Kili’s screaming reduced to a soft sobbing in a much shorter time than might once have been the case. Still, it left Bilbo feeling rattled—as if he had any more need to feel so after the events of the day—and once Kili had quietened and the two dwarves had curled up next to Bilbo once again, he found himself lying long awake in the darkness, thinking and trying not to think. And as he lay there, he became uncomfortably aware of every little noise—every creak, every distant owl, the sound of the wind in the chimney. It was surprising how many noises sounded like someone could be creeping around the hobbit hole, and even though Bilbo told himself again and again that they were simply the normal quiet noises that any home makes at night when it is settled and resting its bones, still he listened harder and harder, and every noise, be it never so innocent, had his heart thudding a little more violently in his chest.

“You are being very foolish,” he said to himself—though not out loud, so as not to wake the children. “That dwarf is far away by now, and there is nothing in the Shire to be frightened of.”

But frightened he was, and frightened he remained through the long, sleepless night, until, at perhaps two or three hours past midnight, he found himself listening to a series of quiet sounds that he had convinced himself were footsteps going past his window, and decided enough was enough.

“Quite ridiculous,” he muttered, and sat up in bed, thinking to go and read for a while to help settle his thoughts.

At that moment, someone coughed outside the window.

It was a quiet cough—quickly stifled, and so muffled anyway that if Bilbo had not been listening so intently he might not have heard it at all. But it was a cough, unmistakeably so, and could not be mistaken for anything else. Bilbo froze, heart thundering in his throat and ears. He tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry, and he was suddenly sure that whoever was out there was listening as closely as he was, and would hear him if he dared to clear it. Outside, all was silent. But there had been a cough. There had been one, and Bilbo turned his head to stare at the circle of dim light that represented the curtained window and found himself more frightened than perhaps he had ever been in his life before.

And then, a figure passed by the window. It was there and gone so quickly that Bilbo might almost have thought he imagined it. Indeed, he wished fervently that he had imagined it, and that there was nothing more dangerous out there than a fox or some other woodland creature. But the shadow he had seen had not belonged to any kind of animal. It had been a person. Too tall to be a hobbit, too short to be a man.

A dwarf. It had been a dwarf.

Bilbo felt sweat begin to stand out on the back of his neck. Very quietly, very carefully, he eased himself out of bed, careful not to disturb Fili and Kili. He had the sudden, terrifying thought that Kili might have another nightmare and begin screaming again, and his mouth went dry at the prospect. But the child appeared to be sleeping, if not quite peacefully, then at least not with any sign of an impending nightmare. Bilbo paused, standing next to the bed now, caught in the throes of indecision. What should he do? What could he do?

From the hallway, he heard a sound. Very faint, very quiet. As though someone were trying the handle of the front door.

Oh. Oh, what could he do? Certainly the door was thick enough, and bolted to boot, but the windows—the windows were not made to provide any serious barrier to a person who did not care about breaking the glass, and if someone truly wished to get in—

Bilbo felt suddenly like he might be sick. And then, a moment later, knew he could not be. The person outside—the dwarf, the dwarf who had come there that day and who Bilbo had promised the children would not come back—wanted to get in, that much was clear. And if he could not come in through the door, he would no doubt try the windows next. And so Bilbo would have to stop him before he did. He had no illusions about his ability to defeat a fully armed dwarf—or even an unarmed one—but perhaps he could call on the strength he had discovered earlier in the evening—strength in numbers. If he could alert the other hobbits, perhaps they could defeat the dwarf together.

At any rate, there was no other choice. It was either confront this dwarf and defeat him, or hide under the bed until he was found, and the little dwarves with him. And so Bilbo took Fili’s sword, where it was lying next to the bed, and moved as quietly as only a hobbit can into the hall. The sword was heavy in his hands—how such a small dwarf could carry it so easily, he had no idea—and he was well aware that he knew nothing of how to wield it. Still, perhaps it, combined with surprise, would win enough time for him to rouse the rest of the village from their beds. He drew a deep breath, took three steps forward, laid his hand on the bolt, and closed his eyes. One. Two.

Three.

Bilbo threw back the bolt and opened the door in one smooth motion, causing the dwarf on the other side to almost fall into the hall, for he must have been leaning up against it, listening, perhaps. Bilbo wasted no time considering this, but only sprang backwards to avoid being landed on, and opened his mouth.

“Hobbits!” he cried, as loud as he could. “Hobbits, help me! Help, help, wake up and help me now!”

The intruder struggled to his feet, and Bilbo swung the sword at him, clumsily enough, even without the added inaccuracy that the darkness created. The dwarf sidestepped him easily, stepping back out into the moonlight garden, and when Bilbo swung again, it was only to hear the sound of steel and to find his blow met by the blade of another sword. The impact almost jarred Fili’s sword out of Bilbo’s hand, and he saw, with a sinking heart, that the intruder’s sword was much longer and more dangerous-looking than the one Bilbo wielded.

“Hobbits!” he cried again, voice high and frantic in his own ears. “Hobbits, help me!”

And then there came an answering cry. But it didn’t come from the direction of the other hobbit holes, from the outside world. It came from behind Bilbo, and in a voice he recognised, and to hear it made his heart quail in his chest.

“Kili, no—” he whispered, but even as he said it, Kili was rushing past him, a blur of motion in the strange, sharp, black-and-white half-world of the moonlit night, shrieking as he ran, wordless cries of terror. Bilbo, heart in his throat, pulled back his sword for fear he would harm the child, and darted forward to try and grab at him. But Kili was too fast, and had launched himself at the dwarf before Bilbo had righted himself from his stumble. The dwarf stepped back into the full light of the moon, his face twisting in surprise, and he reached out a hand to defend himself, seizing Kili by the arm. And then he dropped his sword.

There was a clatter as the sword hit the ground, but Bilbo found himself unable to take advantage of the situation, for now he could not swing his own sword without putting Kili in danger. He started forward, meaning to try and snatch the little dwarf from the older one’s grasp. But a strange change had come over the older one’s face: where before he had been startled and furious, now he suddenly looked astonished, eyes wide, mouth open as if he could not quite get enough air. And before Bilbo could get a grasp on any part of Kili, the dwarf suddenly lifted him into the air and then—to Bilbo’s astonishment—pulled him in to his chest, wrapping his arms around him in an embrace that looked at once both fierce and tender. Kili, for his part, pressed his face against the intruder’s shoulder and brought up a hand, curling his fingers in his hair. He was not screaming any more: instead, he was laughing.

And Bilbo understood. He looked more closely at the intruder’s face, and he saw it was not the dwarf who he had met the day before. It was another dwarf, features sharp in the moonlight, outlined in black shadows and silver skin.

“Mr Bofur?” he asked.

The dwarf looked up at him and frowned, but then he seemed to look at something past him, and Bilbo turned to see Fili standing in the hall behind him. It was too dark to see his face, but he was holding in his hand a metal candlestick—with no candle, and held as if to be a weapon—and as Bilbo turned, he dropped it, just as the older dwarf had his sword. He made a noise—a wordless noise, just as Kili’s had been, but this was much quieter, full of grief, and Bilbo’s heart ached to hear it.

“Fili,” the new dwarf said, voice low and hoarse, and he held out an arm, the other still wrapped tightly around Kili.

“Uncle Thorin,” Fili whispered. And he stumbled forward, past Bilbo, into the proffered embrace, the new dwarf lifting him as if he weighed nothing and pressing his face into Fili’s shoulder.

“I’ve found you,” he murmured. “I’ve found you both.”

Bilbo found that he had a lump in his throat, and a prickling behind his eyes. Uncle Thorin. Well, it seemed as though his two little guests did have some living family, after all. And it seemed, too, that they were very deeply loved—for the new dwarf, though he had seemed terrifying to Bilbo only moments before—and indeed still did, to a certain extent—was weeping now, and both Fili and Kili clung to him as if they were drowning. Bilbo’s heart ached, but it was something of a pleasant ache, now.

“Bilbo!” came a cry from his left, and he turned to see Rose hastening up the hill towards him, a frying pan in her hands. “Are you all right?”

“Oh,” Bilbo said, and he hurried to meet her. “Yes, yes,” he said in a low tone. “Yes, I thought—but I was wrong. He is their family, you see. Their uncle.”

Rose made a little squeak of surprise, and turned to stare at the little group of dwarves that stood outlined in the sharp silver light. “My goodness, how unexpected!” she said. “Their uncle?”

Bilbo turned himself, just in time to see the new dwarf—Uncle Thorin—pull back a little from his embrace and press his forehead tenderly first against Fili’s, then against Kili’s. He was still crying, and the tears glinted in the moonlight.

“Their uncle indeed,” Bilbo said.

And he smiled.

Chapter Text

When Bilbo had called for aid, he’d hoped that he might awaken the whole village—or at least the whole hillside—and in this way defeat the threat which he had no hope of seeing off alone. But once he discovered—to his great astonishment—that the threat was no threat at all, but rather a member of his little guests’ long-lost family, he rather forgot about the whole thing. Forgot, that was, until Asphodel Burrows came hurrying up, her husband in tow and a heavy-looking hoe in her hand.

“Bilbo,” she panted, “are you all right?”

“Hm?” Bilbo said, looking around in surprise. “Oh! Yes, yes, I am quite all right.” He became aware suddenly that hobbits were emerging from their hobbit holes all over the hillside, some carrying household implements, others lanterns, and all looking worriedly in the direction of Bag End. “Oh dear,” he muttered.

“All a misunderstanding,” Rose said cheerfully. “You will be all right now? You are sure?”

She said this to Bilbo, and Bilbo drew a breath, and nodded. Certainly, the children would not have reacted the way they did if this newcomer was any kind of threat at all. “Thank you,” he said, seeing for the first time that Rose had come out in her nightgown, her coat thrown hastily over the top of it. “Thank you so much, my dear friend.”

“Don’t mention it,” Rose said. “Now, I will go and tell these hobbits to go back to bed, which I’m sure they will all be very happy to do.” She took Asphodel by the arm, and the two of them started to make their way down the hill, stopping by each little group of hobbits and conferring with them quietly. Bilbo, meanwhile, became aware that, while Rose had at least had a coat on, he was wearing nothing but a nightgown, and the air was really very cold. And that had him turning to look at the dwarves, and at Kili in particular. The little dwarf was dressed only in Bilbo’s oversized shirt, his lower legs and feet bare, and Bilbo felt worry stir in his heart.

“Ahem,” he said, stepping a little closer and clearing his throat. “Er—excuse me, master dwarf. I don’t mean to be rude, but young Kili is not supposed to get cold, and—”

The words died in his throat, petering out into a sort of strangled squeak, for no sooner had he begun speaking than the new dwarf had shifted Fili and Kili so that he held them both in one arm, and had used the other to pick up his sword and level it at Bilbo’s throat. Gone were the tender tears, and what had replaced them was a look of cold fury.

“Who are you, and what do you want with my nephews?” the dwarf asked, his voice deep with anger.

Bilbo raised his hands, taking a quick step backwards. “Er—I haven’t—that is to say—” he started, unable to overcome his terror enough to speak anything resembling sense.

“Uncle, no,” Fili said, squirming in the new dwarf’s grasp. “Mr Bilbo’s nice. He’s looking after us, he saved us. And Kili’s not supposed to get cold, we’ve got to go in.”

A frown flickered on the new dwarf’s face, and he glanced quickly at Fili, without lowering his sword. “Saved you from what?” he asked.

“Kili was ill,” Fili said. “It was all snowy, and we got cold. I didn’t mean to let him get cold but he got all cold and then he got ill. And Mr Bilbo helped us, otherwise Kili would have died.”

“I’m not cold,” Kili chimed in, and Bilbo heard the hint of a wheeze in his voice. “Mr Bilbo’s nice. Don’t be mean to him, he’s nice.”

The new dwarf’s frown deepened, and he looked sharply at Kili. “Breathe properly, Kili,” he said.

“He’s not well,” Fili said, sounding urgent now, and beginning to struggle in his uncle’s arms. “Please, uncle, he needs to get warm.”

At that, the new dwarf’s frown deepened. He contemplated Kili for a long moment, then abruptly sheathed his sword and turned to Bilbo.

“You have a fire in your house?” he asked.

“Er,” Bilbo said, somewhat taken aback by the rapid change in the dwarf’s demeanour towards him. “Yes, I think—I should be able to stoke up the embers in the living room—”

The dwarf did not reply to this, but simply swept into the hobbit hole, leaving Bilbo standing in the garden and staring after him.

“Yes, do come in,” he said at last, to no-one in particular.

And he followed the dwarf inside and closed the door.

****

He found all three dwarves in the living room, the new dwarf still holding both Kili and Fili in one arm while he stoked up the fire. Bilbo took a moment to marvel at his strength—for he knew how heavy a burden it was to carry both children at once—and then turned his attention to feeling somewhat put-out. Glad as he was that this uncle had arrived, he nonetheless considered it really quite rude to be so ignored in his own hobbit hole.

“Hello,” he said. “I see you’ve made yourself at home.”

The new dwarf turned to look at him, shifting Fili to his right arm now that the fire was licking up the chimney once again. He cocked his head on one side with a frown, looking Bilbo up and down, and Bilbo took the opportunity to return the favour. The new dwarf was at least a head taller than Bilbo, with long, wild, dark hair and a neat beard. He wore heavy clothing that looked as though it had once been rather fine, though now it seemed somewhat the worse for wear. The sword he carried at his hip—though sheathed now—was much longer than the weapon that Fili carried, and much heavier, too, Bilbo had no doubt. Hanging from his other side, he carried a half-log which Bilbo had no explanation for (firewood, perhaps?), but which he couldn’t help but think was a heavy burden to be carrying around for no reason. But then, it seemed this dwarf uncle had little care for weighty burdens. Or for manners, either, come to that.

“You are not a dwarf, nor a man,” the newcomer said, and Bilbo found himself startled out of his reverie. “Certainly not an elf.”

Bilbo laughed in surprise. “Dear me, no,” he said. “I’m a hobbit.”

The dwarf did not seem much enlightened by this. Kili tugged at his sleeve.

“Hobbits don’t have beards,” he said, in his hoarse whisper.

The dwarf frowned—it seemed he was rather fond of frowning, which Bilbo felt was not really an auspicious trait—and then seemed to come to a realisation. “A halfling,” he said. “But how does a halfling come to have my nephews in his—” He looked around himself, mouth twitching. “—cave?”

“It’s a hobbit hole, actually,” Bilbo said. “And I found them by the side of the road, if you must know. Quite lost, and very hungry and cold. Not to mention poor Kili’s illness.”

The new dwarf looked at Fili. “Is this true?” he asked.

Fili nodded quickly. “Mr Bilbo saved us,” he said. “He saved Kili.”

The new dwarf considered Bilbo for a moment. “In that case, I am deeply in your debt,” he said. “If you should ever find yourself in need of help, know that you need only call on me or any member of my family, and we will come to your aid.” He managed, somehow, to give a sweeping, magisterial bow without dropping either of the children. “Thorin Oakenshield, at your service.”

Bilbo felt suddenly rather awkward and quite underdressed, though it was certainly not his fault that he was wearing only his nightgown. “Bilbo Baggins, at yours and your family’s,” he said, bowing in turn, though he was quite sure that his own bow did not have any of the gravity and solemnity of Thorin’s. “Er—would you like some tea?”

Thorin inclined his head. “Thank you,” he said. “Do you have anything to help warm Kili up?”

“Oh—oh yes, certainly,” Bilbo said. “Blankets and— Can I listen?” He stepped a little closer, listening carefully to Kili’s breathing. “Hm—not so bad, I think,” he said. “But keep him close to the fire.”

Thorin responded to this by bringing Kili closer in to his chest, and sinking into the armchair that was still arranged by the fire from the night before. Bilbo hurried off to organise tea and blankets, and some clothes for himself while he was at it, and by the time he got back, both children were curled in their uncle’s lap, Fili’s arms wrapped around Kili and Thorin’s around both of them. Bilbo paused a moment, feeling a sudden, overwhelming sense of relief at the sight of them—at the children so clearly safe and well, and with someone they loved at last. Then he cleared his throat and came forward.

“Blankets,” he said, holding them out. Thorin took them with a nod, and gave them to Fili, who set about wrapping first Kili and then himself. Thorin, meanwhile, kept his eyes on Bilbo.

“Tell me about his illness,” he said.

“Well—he was already ill when he came here, you know,” Bilbo said. “When I found them, he could barely walk. He had a bout of lung fever, which was—unpleasant.” He closed his eyes for a moment, remembering the long nights wondering if the little dwarf child would draw his next breath. “But he recovered with the help of a healer I know. Unfortunately, it seems he is still vulnerable, especially to the cold, but also to too much exercise. It makes him breathless.”

Thorin’s arms tightened around his nephews, and he pulled the armchair a little closer to the fire. He was sweating, Bilbo saw, his heavy clothes steaming a little as if they had been damp.

“How did he get ill?” he asked, and this time the question was directed to Fili.

“He was too cold,” Fili said, sitting up a little. “We were really cold. And we got wet, there was snow but it was all wet. I tried to keep him warm, but we couldn’t find any wood for a fire—but I tried, uncle, I was looking after him, I was.”

Thorin frowned at this, but Bilbo found himself suddenly reminded of just how it was that these children had come into his home in the first place, and how they had claimed to be orphans, with no kin to care for them. And yet, here was one such kinsman, and one who clearly had the ability to protect himself and others. And what had he been doing while his nephews had been wandering in the woods for months on end, starving and cold?

“Fili has done an excellent job of looking after both himself and his brother,” Bilbo said. “And I might ask why he had to do such a thing in the first place, when he is so young? Those two poor creatures were lost in the wilderness for months—for months! — and would certainly have died if I had not found them. And a terrible state they were in, too! Might I ask, master dwarf, where you were when all this was happening?”

Thorin raised his eyebrows, and Bilbo became aware that his tone had been really rather sharp, but also found that he did not much care. Remembering the first night the dwarves had come to his hobbit hole, when Fili had been too suspicious to take his eyes off Bilbo and Kili had been too ill even to eat, he felt a great surge of anger in his heart that anyone, let alone a kinsman, should have abandoned two helpless children to such a fate.

Thorin watched him for a moment or two, then turned to look into the fire. “You may ask,” he said. “The answer is a long one, and difficult, and perhaps not something you truly wish to know.”

“I think I can decide what it is I wish to know, in my own home of all places,” Bilbo said, rather snappishly.

Thorin frowned into the fire. “Perhaps you can, at that,” he said, and glanced over at Bilbo, looking a little puzzled. “We sent them back along the path, to a place that should have been easy to find, but when we went to meet them, they were not there. I do not know why.”

Fili shifted rather uneasily, but Bilbo, having already heard his part of the story, did not care to ask him to repeat it. Indeed, he was still much more interested—and incensed—by Thorin’s part. “Sent them back?” he said. “You sent two small children out into the woods on their own? Why should you possibly want to do such a thing, no matter how easy your meeting spot was to find? Why, they could easily have been eaten by wolves, even if they had managed to find the place!”

Thorin’s frown became a scowl, and he turned from the fire to look at Bilbo. “They are quite capable of finding their way through the woods,” he said. “Fili is quite capable.”

“Well, I think it’s safe to say that that is not true, given what happened,” Bilbo snapped. Fili flinched at this, and Bilbo felt immediately sorry. “I do not mean to say Fili is not capable,” he added hastily. “Certainly he is very much more responsible than any child his age I have met. But he should not have to be so—I have never seen a child carry such a heavy burden, and I hope never to see it again.”

Thorin’s expression grew even stormier at this. “I thank you for what you have done for my family,” he said, “but how they are raised is not your affair.”

“I certainly agree with that,” Bilbo said. “Certainly! I wanted nothing at all to do with raising them, I can tell you. But unfortunately, since I found them starving and ill by the side of the road, I had no choice but to make it my affair. And I must say, I am not greatly inclined to return them to the care of someone who does not seem to have great concern for their welfare.”

Well, as soon as he had said this, Bilbo felt both sorry and frightened, for he knew that it would anger Thorin, and he knew, too, that the dwarf was armed and unpredictable. And so he found himself opening his mouth to apologise, even as Thorin’s face grew black indeed. But as it happened, neither of them said whatever it was they had been planning to say, for the tense silence created by Bilbo’s statement was broken instead by little Kili.

“Why are you shouting?” he asked, looking first at Bilbo and then at Thorin. “Why are you shouting?”

“Sh, Kili,” Fili whispered, but Thorin looked down at the two little dwarves in his arms as if he had forgotten they were there.

“Mr Baggins and I are having a... difference of opinion,” he said.

“What about?” Kili said. “Mr Bilbo’s nice.”

Thorin fell silent at this, frowning at Kili as if he was trying to solve some kind of puzzle. Kili seemed not at all uncomfortable to be put under this intense scrutiny, but only reached up and patted Thorin on the cheek.

“He’s nice,” he said.

“They caught us,” Fili said then, suddenly. He looked from Bilbo to Thorin and back. “We would have found the way, but they caught us. We tried to be quiet, but Kili fell over and hurt his hand and he was crying. He couldn’t help crying, he hurt his hand, but then they found us. And then we got away, but not for weeks, and we were lost and we couldn’t find the place again.” He gave Thorin a pleading sort of look. “I tried to find it, but we couldn’t find it.”

The anger drained from Thorin’s face at this, and instead he looked stricken, tightening his arms around his nephews. “Did they hurt you?” he asked.

Fili’s face darkened. “They hurt Kili,” he said, half-whispering, and tightening his own grip on his brother. “They did it on purpose.”

Thorin closed his eyes for a brief moment, and then bent and kissed the top of Kili’s head, and then Fili’s. “They will never touch you again,” he murmured.

Bilbo, meanwhile, was feeling rather confused, but also had a quiet fear growing in his belly. He did not know who it was that Fili was talking about, but he remembered the dwarf from the day before, who had come so far afield looking for Bilbo’s little guests, and he began to understand that there was a great deal more here to be feared than he had realised. “You don’t mean to say—” he started, and then faltered a little when Thorin raised his head, fixing him with a furious stare. But it was not for Bilbo that this fury was meant, and after a moment or two Bilbo understood this and continued his question. “You don’t mean to say you were kidnapped?” he said. “Surely not. I thought you were just lost?”

Fili gave him an unhappy look and then whispered something to Thorin in the dwarven language. Thorin replied in the same tongue, then frowned at Bilbo, as if trying to make some kind of decision. He turned back to Fili and asked him something, and Fili nodded.

“We hid in the pantry,” he said. “He could have told him we were there, but he didn’t. He didn’t know it wasn’t Mr Bofur, or he wouldn’t have let him in.”

Bilbo blinked, trying to make sense of this half-understood conversation. They were talking about the events of the day before, that was clear enough, but how this Thorin knew about them to ask was less clear. And then it became rather difficult to think clearly, for Thorin had fixed him with a silent, unwavering gaze, as if peeling back the layers of Bilbo Baggins to see what lay within, and Bilbo found himself unable to concentrate on anything but the uncomfortable sensation of being watched.

“We were attacked,” Thorin said all of a sudden, so abruptly that Bilbo was rather startled. “We were travelling, and they set upon us in the night. We had no warning. We sent the lads away to keep them safe—so we hoped.” He shook his head, kissing Kili again. “It seems that we were unsuccessful,” he murmured, and there was an edge of fury in his voice.

Bilbo’s throat became rather dry. He had been frightened enough by the appearance of the strange dwarf the day before, but now it seemed that his guests had been subject to a great deal more persecution than he had imagined. Their family attacked, and the little dwarves themselves kidnapped and apparently poorly treated—why, it was enough to make Bilbo’s heart twist in fear. And here he had thought that being lost in the woods for weeks on end without food or shelter was a cruel enough fate, but to hear this! In his mind, he heard again Fili’s words — they hurt Kili — and he felt the fear in his heart change a little, felt it become something more like anger.

“You see, Mr Baggins,” Thorin said, “we dwarves are not ogres who do not care a straw for our children. I would not have sent my nephews alone into the woods if I had felt there was a safer choice to make.”

“Oh,” Bilbo said, feeling a little sheepishness mixed in with his fear and anger. “Oh, yes—I am sorry. And I am so sorry for you boys, as well, so sorry. I wish I had known— But now. But now, who on earth would attack you and kidnap you? Who would hurt Kili? Why should anyone want to do such a thing?”

All three dwarves stared at him, then, Fili worried, Thorin assessing, and Kili simply rather sleepy-looking. But even if any of them intended to answer his question, the answer never came. For at that moment—a quiet moment, with the crackling of the fire the only sound to be heard—the silence was suddenly broken by a soft creaking noise from the hall.

Bilbo sat up sharply, his stomach lurching in fear. There was a chill draught, all of a sudden, and he felt sure—suddenly sure—that the front door was open, and he knew that he had closed it firmly behind him when he had come in. He glanced at Thorin, and saw that he had risen silently to his feet, his nephews still in his arms, and was frowning towards the hallway. And then, even as Bilbo rose too, his frown lightened.

“In here,” he called out.

Bilbo barely had time to wonder what he meant by doing such a thing before a great, hulking shadow appeared in the doorway that led to the hall. Bilbo felt his heart quailing within him, for this person—whoever he might be—was larger even than Thorin, and when he stepped into the firelight, Bilbo saw he had a frightening aspect indeed, his face bristling with a black beard and deeply-etched tattoos, his eyes knife-sharp, and a great axe held in one hand. Even as Bilbo watched, this craggy face split into a terrifying grin, and Bilbo found himself unable to stand still, falling back a pace and casting about him for some kind of weapon.

“Lads!” the newcomer said then, and strode forward, clapping Thorin on the shoulder and then seizing each of the children by the shoulders in turn, bending his head to press his forehead against theirs, grinning maniacally. “You found them!”

“Mr Dwalin!” Kili cried, reaching his hands up to tug at the newcomer’s beard. The dwarf—Mr Dwalin—laughed uproariously and snapped at Kili’s fingers.

“What have I said, you wee terror?” he asked. “Keep your hands off!” He straightened and looked at Thorin, still grinning that wicked grin. “Give em to me,” he said.

Thorin shook his head. “Not yet,” he said.

“Aye, you’ve had em for a while,” Mr Dwalin said. “Give me one, at least.”

There was a tense moment—or at least, Bilbo thought it was tense, though he was rather at sixes and sevens and perhaps his judgement could not quite be trusted—when the two older dwarves simply stared at one another. Then Thorin nodded, and held out Kili. Mr Dwalin grunted in approval, and took the little dwarf from his uncle, wrapping his huge arms around him and embracing him with a loving ferocity that Bilbo was amazed to see. Kili stretched his little arms as far as they would reach around Mr Dwalin, and Mr Dwalin hugged him tighter and rubbed his beard against Kili’s cheek, eliciting a sleepy giggle. Bilbo felt rather a lump in his throat, and he opened his mouth to announce that he was going to close the front door, and then decided against it, and slipped away silently instead.

When he came back, he found that Thorin and Mr Dwalin were eyeing each other. They did not speak, and yet somehow Bilbo felt that something passed between them nonetheless. And then, without a word spoken, each held out the child he was carrying, and took the other. Kili, almost asleep now, mumbled something inaudible and curled up in Thorin’s arms. Fili embraced Mr Dwalin warmly, and was embraced in turn, with no less enthusiasm than his brother had been. Bilbo felt glad in his heart, and perhaps he made some noise, for after a moment or two, Mr Dwalin turned to him—Fili still wrapped in his arms—and looked him up and down.

“And who might you be?” he asked.

“Er—Bilbo Baggins, at your service,” Bilbo said, bobbing a bow and wishing that his voice did not sound quite so squeaky.

“Mr Baggins has been looking after the lads,” Thorin put in. “Indeed, he has saved their lives more than once, by all accounts.”

“Has he, aye?” Mr Dwalin said, eyebrows drawing down. Then he bowed deeply. “In that case, it is I who am at your service, Mr Baggins. I hope you will remember it.”

“Oh, er—” Bilbo said, a little taken aback. “Yes—yes indeed. Thank you, yes.”

Mr Dwalin rose, then, shifting Fili in his arms. But Fili seemed uneasy, a worried frown on his face, and after a moment or two Mr Dwalin held him out at arm’s length and inspected him.

“What’s wrong with you, laddie?” he asked.

Fili chewed his lip. “I tried to look after him,” he said, glancing at Thorin, and at Kili sleeping in his arms. “I did, I tried.”

Mr Dwalin frowned. “Aye, he’s alive and well,” he said. “I see that.”

Fili subsided at that, an anxious expression on his face. Bilbo thought maybe he should speak up—maybe he should tell Thorin and Mr Dwalin of all the things Fili had done to keep his brother safe, of how great a responsibility he had taken on his shoulders—but his thought was interrupted by Thorin, who suddenly staggered, stumbling sideways a step or two. Immediately, Mr Dwalin sprang forward, catching Thorin with one arm before he could fall.

Not that bad, aye?” he said, with the air of someone continuing an argument.

Thorin glowered at him, but Mr Dwalin shook his head. “Sit down before I make you sit down,” he said. “There.” He pointed to the armchair by the fire, and Thorin, after another moment of scowling, made his careful way there and sank down with something like gratitude, arranging Kili on his lap. Bilbo, examining him more closely, saw that the sweat was still standing out on his forehead, and his face seemed to have grown a little pale.

“Oh dear,” he said. “Are you ill?”

Thorin cast a glance at him, but only shook his head in answer. Bilbo turned to Mr Dwalin, and found him scowling at Thorin.

“Is he ill?” Bilbo murmured. Mr Dwalin did not answer for a long moment, but at last, he sighed.

“Is there any food?” he asked.

“Yes, certainly,” Bilbo said—for in truth, he was beginning to feel rather hungry himself. “Where are my manners?”

And he hastened off, mind whirling with questions, to make toast and tea. Once he was in the kitchen, he decided to add some sausages and bacon—for who knew how long the two adult dwarves had been wandering? And besides, Kili had barely eaten the night before. But by the time he returned to the living room, Kili was fast asleep in his uncle’s lap, and the aforementioned uncle appeared to have fallen asleep, too, head nodding in front of the fire. Mr Dwalin was still awake, and looked as though he could stay awake for a hundred years and never need a moment's sleep. In his arms, though, Fili had dozed off, and Bilbo was glad, for he was sure the young dwarf had barely slept a wink that night up until that moment. So it was to Mr Dwalin alone that Bilbo served his midnight supper—although Bilbo himself partook, of course—and the two of them sat quietly eating, Mr Dwalin watching Thorin with a frown and Bilbo feeling rather uncomfortable. At last, though, Mr Dwalin set down his cup and spoke.

“The dwarf who was here yesterday,” he said, “what did you do to make him leave?”

Bilbo, reminded that somehow these dwarves seemed to know something about what had happened the day before, swallowed a mouthful of bacon. “I led him to believe I had two hobbit sons,” he said. Mr Dwalin looked unenlightened by this, and Bilbo realised he would need to explain further. “You see—I thought he was a Mr Bofur,” he said, and then told the whole story, from trying to extract the information from Fili to borrowing Rose’s children for the occasion. Mr Dwalin sat silent and listened, and when the tale was done, he raised his eyebrows.

“I wouldn’t have thought you had it in you,” he said, and reached out, clapping Bilbo so hard on the shoulder that he nearly fell out of his chair. “You’re braver than you look, Mr Baggins.”

“Oh, well, thank you,” Bilbo said, rubbing his shoulder and wondering whether there would be a bruise come morning. “Yes, it was all rather unfortunate.”

Mr Dwalin snorted at that, then looked down at Fili in his arms. “Aye, and you did well, too, lad,” he murmured. “Did yourself proud.”

Fili—fully asleep now—did not answer. But a moment later he twitched in Mr Dwalin’s arms, then suddenly jerked awake. “Kili,” he gasped, reaching out, groping at the empty air. “Kili, where are you?”

“Hush, now, laddie,” Mr Dwalin murmured. “He’s over there, with your uncle.” He pointed in the direction of the armchair, and Fili, clearly still mostly asleep, blinked at the sight, and then struggled until Mr Dwalin let him go. He half-fell off Mr Dwalin’s lap, then stumbled over to Thorin’s armchair and climbed up onto his knee. Thorin started awake, but when he saw who it was, he only opened his arms and drew Fili towards him. Fili, though, seemed only to have eyes for his brother, and he wrapped his arms around Kili’s sleeping form and pressed his forehead against the back of Kili’s head.

“Don’t wander off,” he mumbled. “You’re supposed to stay here.”

Then he fell asleep again, and Thorin—who seemed to have barely woken—quickly followed, leaving only Bilbo and Mr Dwalin awake once again. Mr Dwalin sat silent for a long time after that, watching the two children with a troubled frown. But at last, he rose to his feet.

“I’ll keep a watch outside,” he said. “Make sure there’s no more unwanted visitors.”

Bilbo nodded, feeling suddenly very much safer. Mr Dwalin slipped from the room, and Bilbo was left alone with the flickering shadows and three sleeping dwarves. Only Kili seemed peaceful—Fili was sleeping restlessly, and Thorin was frowning in his sleep, as though he was in pain. Bilbo wondered if he should try and sleep himself, but the idea of leaving the living room left him feeling unsettled and concerned both about himself and about the dwarves, and the idea of sleeping in the armchair left him feeling preemptively sore. So he simply sat and watched as the long night drew on, and wondered from time to time what the morrow would bring. Perhaps Thorin would simply take his nephews away, and leave Bilbo to his quiet life. But, just as on the day before, he found that the thought of this brought him little comfort, and indeed, if anything, produced an unpleasant pain in his heart. And when, at perhaps three or four hours past midnight, he looked up to see that snow had begun to fall outside the window, he realised that it was out of the question anyway—for even if the dwarves had been able to travel in the snow, with Kili’s illness still not entirely healed, they would certainly not be able to go soon. It seemed, then, that Bilbo would be having even more unexpected guests for at least the next little while.

“Bother,” he muttered to himself, and went to make up some more beds.

Chapter Text

Bilbo was awakened by a heavy hand on his shoulder, shaking him lightly. He started, blinking heavily, and was briefly terrified to find himself confronted with a scowling dwarf, much larger than the two he was accustomed to. But then, as his mind grew clearer, he remembered the events of the day before, and—after a moment’s consideration—decided that the dwarf was most likely not scowling, but only of a general serious demeanour, if his earlier behaviour was any guide.

“Good morning,” Bilbo said, feeling tired and a little irritated to have to deal with guests before he had even really woken up. “Did you sleep well?”

“No,” Thorin replied. “I have a request to make of you.”

“Of course,” Bilbo said, sitting up a little straighter and wincing as his back protested. He certainly had not intended to fall asleep in his armchair in the living room, but apparently that was what he had done. Glancing around, he saw that none of the other dwarves were in evidence, and that outside, the pale grey of the sky suggested that somewhere the sun was rising. “What is it?”

“More blankets,” Thorin said. “For Kili.”

“Certainly,” Bilbo said, struggling to his feet. He hurried to find the blankets, hoping that the request was simply a sign that the fires needed to be more carefully tended, and not an indication that the poor child had fallen ill again. He was quite sure, though, that if such a thing had happened, he would have been awoken by the commotion. As for where Fili and Kili were, well, perhaps they were in bed.

“Here we are,” he said, returning to the living room with an armful of blankets. “I hope this is enough.”

“Thank you,” Thorin said, regarding him gravely. “I have nothing to give you in exchange at this moment, but I will repay you as soon as I can. My word is to be trusted.”

“Pay me?” Bilbo said. “Oh, now, don’t be ridiculous. You are my guest.”

Thorin raised an eyebrow, then nodded. “Your hospitality is exemplary,” he said.

“Is it?” Bilbo replied, wondering what kinds of customs were common to dwarves that the mere offer of extra blankets should be seen as so unusual. “Well—good, I suppose.”

At that moment, Fili appeared from the hall, towing Kili by the hand. Both were dressed, and while Kili looked a little sleepy, Fili was anxious and pale.

“There you are,” Thorin said, and then looked both of them up and down. “Do you have anything else?”

“Other clothes,” Fili said. “Not many. And some toys.”

“No toys,” Thorin said. “You have coats?”

Fili nodded. “In the hall,” he said.

“Good,” Thorin replied. “Help your brother get ready.” He held out a hand. “Kili, give me that doll.”

Kili, who had turned to go to the hall, looked back, eyes wide. He had his doll clutched in one hand, as usual, and as Bilbo watched, his fingers seemed to tighten around it. “Why?” he asked, in his half-whisper.

Thorin raised his eyebrows. “Because I said so,” he said. “We can’t take it with us.”

“Why not?” Kili asked, but something in Thorin’s face had him suddenly hurrying to put the doll in Thorin’s hand. He let go of it reluctantly, though, and then stood staring at it.

“Can’t I take it?” he whispered. “I’ll look after it and I won’t get muddy.”

It was at this moment that all of these occurrences began to form a clear picture in Bilbo’s mind. “Er—excuse me,” he said. “Excuse me, but—are you going somewhere?”

Fili arrived back from the hall, carrying Kili’s coat and wearing his own. He looked more than just anxious, Bilbo realised—he looked almost drawn, his mouth set in a tight, worried line. “Uncle,” he said, “Kili’s not supposed to get cold.”

“I’m not cold,” Kili said, squirming while Fili tried to put his coat on him. “Can’t I have my doll? Please, I’ll be good, please, uncle.”

Thorin, though, did not appear to be listening. He strode across the room and peered out of the window, then knocked on the glass. He didn’t say anything, but a moment later, the front door opened, and Mr Dwalin appeared, filling almost the entire doorway.

“Excuse me,” Bilbo said again. “Master dwarf, can I ask what you’re doing?”

“Here,” Thorin said, holding out the blankets Bilbo had given him to Fili. “Help me wrap him up.”

“My—my doll—” Kili whispered, and Fili shushed him and put one of the blankets around his shoulders. Kili immediately shrugged it off, and Fili shook his head.

“Don’t,” he said quietly. “You’ve got to be good, now.”

“Master dwarf,” Bilbo said, starting to feel as though perhaps he was invisible. “Master dwarf, if you please—”

“Kili,” Thorin said sharply, and Kili started and shrank behind his brother, staring up at Thorin, round-eyed. Thorin stared back down at him, and it seemed that he had been planning to say something else—to reprimand the child in some way—but the anger on his face was replaced by a puzzled frown, and after a moment, he bent and picked up a blanket that lay where Kili had discarded it. “Behave yourself,” he said, but his voice was much gentler than Bilbo had expected.

“Uncle,” Fili said then, “Kili can’t get cold. He’s not supposed to get cold.”

Thorin nodded. “Wrap him up well,” he said.

“Are we going home?” Kili asked, looking from Thorin to Fili. “Are we—Are we going home?”

“No, sh,” Fili said, trying again to put a blanket around his brother’s shoulders. “Sh, now. Be good.”

“Excuse me,” said Bilbo, much louder than before, and a sudden silence fell. Thorin turned to stare at him, and after a moment Bilbo realised that in fact, all four dwarves were staring at him, as if he had just done some kind of circus trick. Now that he finally had their attention, he felt rather flustered and nervous. But a glance at the window, and at the snow that was still falling, hardened his resolve.

“Kili can’t go out in this weather,” he said, mostly to Thorin. “It’s far too cold.”

Thorin frowned at him. “It is not your affair,” he said.

“Yes, I know, you’re his uncle and so on,” Bilbo said, “but I don’t think you understand. Really, I insist, he cannot go out.”

“You insist?” Thorin asked, his frown becoming something of a scowl. “What right have you to insist on anything when it comes to my nephews?”

“Well, I don’t know about right,” Bilbo said, “but I have been looking after them and I think I can at least have an opinion.”

“Are we going out to the woods?” Kili asked in a loud whisper. “Can I take my basket? I don’t want to get hungry, Mr Bilbo, can I take it?”

“Hush, sh,” Fili said, and he was beginning to look quite twisted with anxiety now, looking from Bilbo to Thorin and trying at the same time to wrap Kili up in the blankets. “Sh, Kili, sh.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Bilbo said, and he stepped forward and scooped Kili up into his arms, then turned to Thorin. The look Thorin gave him was enough to make his poor hobbit heart almost stop beating in his chest, but he heard Kili’s breath in his ear, and remembered how it had wheezed and grated the day that he had almost died in Bilbo’s arms, and he managed, somehow, to stand firm.

“What right have you—” Thorin started, but Bilbo, though he could not quite help falling a step back, had his own question to ask.

“What right have you?” he asked. “This child is ill. He is ill! You have not listened to your nephew, and you have not listened to me, and now you propose to take him out in the snow, where he will be dead before you go half a mile! And when there is a perfectly good warm fire here, and food, and beds, and you are welcome to stay. You are his uncle, yes—then you have the right to gamble his life for no reason, do you?”

Thorin’s eyes flashed. “Aye, stay here,” he said. “Here, a place that is already known to them, and defended by a gaggle of gardeners with hoes and kitchen implements. And what shall we do if they come back in force? We cannot defend ourselves here, and he would lose that life you would not care to see me gamble.”

“He will not still have it to lose if you take him out in the snow,” Bilbo snapped. “And that dwarf does not know they are here. He does not know, I tell you!”

“Blankets!” Thorin said. “We have blankets, we have his coat. We will not let him get cold.”

“No, you haven’t listened,” Bilbo said, tightening his arms around Kili, who was looking from him to Thorin, eyes wide. “You haven’t listened, master dwarf! The illness is in his lungs. It is the cold air in his lungs that will kill him, and do you propose to warm that up before he breathes it? Why, his own brother did the very same thing not so long ago—took him out wrapped in blankets, in better weather than this, I might add—and he almost died. He almost died! But you haven’t be listening, and so of course you do not know. Why, I begin to see exactly where your nephews get their stubborn foolishness from!”

Thorin made a noise of fury and took a step towards Bilbo, but then Mr Dwalin stepped forward.

“I’ll get him,” he said. As he passed, though, he brushed against Thorin’s side, and Thorin made a strangled noise and staggered, falling suddenly to one knee, face pale. Mr Dwalin seemed not to notice, but only came and stood in front of Bilbo, looming over him. When he spoke, though, he did not sound angry at all.

“Give him to me, aye,” he said in a low voice. “I’ll look after him.”

Bilbo, heart thundering in his throat, took a deep breath. But something about Mr Dwalin’s face—though it looked never so grim—had him reconsidering the words he had planned to say. And instead, he held Kili out, trailing blankets and looking frightened and not far from tears.

Mr Dwalin took the child and nodded at Bilbo, then turned to where Thorin still knelt on the floor, supporting himself with his hand, and knelt down himself, carrying Kili easily in one arm.

“And how well do you think we’ll manage marching through the snow when you drop like this every time someone touches you wrong?” Mr Dwalin asked. His voice was low, but not so low that Bilbo could not hear and understand.

Thorin lifted his head and gave him a black look. “We’re not safe here,” he said. “The lads are not safe.”

Mr Dwalin nodded slowly. “And if the wee lad dies of cold as the hobbit says he will?” he asked. “How will you feel then?”

Thorin’s mouth twitched. “If they should attack—” he started.

“We’ll be better able to defend ourselves here than out there,” Mr Dwalin said. He looked around the room, then gave a satisfied nod. “Good defensive position,” he said. “Small windows. We just need strength in numbers.”

Silence fell, then, Thorin and Mr Dwalin staring at each other without speaking. Then Mr Dwalin grunted and rose to his feet, holding out a hand to Thorin. Thorin took it, and rose, too, though his face seemed bloodless under his beard. He turned and stared blackly at Bilbo, and Bilbo did his very best not to look absolutely terrified (although he was).

“Uncle,” Fili said in a wavering voice. “Kili’s not supposed to go out in the cold. Miss Lily said.”

Thorin glanced at him, then frowned and nodded. He turned back to Bilbo.

“Tell me of his illness,” he said.

Bilbo tried to speak, but found that all that came out was a tiny squeak. He cleared his throat and tried again. “Lung fever,” he said. “I told you. I have already told you.”

“Indeed,” Thorin said. “Tell me more.” He leaned on the back of one of the armchairs and fixed Bilbo with a penetrating gaze, and Bilbo swallowed, feeling quite discomfited.

“Well, I—” he said. “Well—he was already ill when I found them, you know. I thought it was a cold at first, but—”

And so he told the story of Kili’s illness, of the nights when he had lain awake struggling to draw breath, of the fever and the delirium, of the day that Fili had tried to run away and come tearing back with Kili at death’s door in his arms. Fili’s face grew even more anxious at this last, but he did not speak, and Bilbo concluded his story with the scattered attacks Kili had had since then, and Lily’s advice about avoiding the cold and excessive exercise. And when he had finished, he stood still and wondered if Thorin would try to take the child outside anyway, even after everything, and what Bilbo would do—what he could do—to stop him.

Thorin, though, simply stood, leaning against the chair, looking at Bilbo but not really seeming to see him. His gaze was turned inward, and he stood in silence for some little while before turning abruptly to Mr Dwalin.

“Give him to me,” he said.

Mr Dwalin did not hesitate, but held Kili out, and Kili seemed glad to go, holding out his arms and putting them around Thorin’s neck. Thorin, for his part, embraced the child fiercely, and laid a kiss upon his head. Then he lifted his own head, and nodded at Mr Dwalin.

“Then we’ll wait for Oin,” he said.

Mr Dwalin nodded back. “For Oin, aye,” he said.

Kili looked from Thorin to Mr Dwalin, then tugged at Thorin’s sleeve.

“What about my doll?” he whispered. “Fili said I could have it.”

“What doll?” Thorin asked.

Kili’s face crumpled a little, and Fili suddenly moved, hurrying to where the doll had fallen, forgotten, onto the floor and picking it up.

“He likes it,” he said to Thorin. “He gets scared.”

Thorin eyed the doll, then nodded, and Fili came forward and held it out to Kili, who seized it and hugged it with great enthusiasm.

“My doll,” he whispered.

“Hm,” Mr Dwalin grunted. “Have you eaten?”

Thorin looked a little surprised at the change of subject, but shook his head. Mr Dwalin sighed—it was barely audible, but Bilbo’s sharp hobbit ears caught it nonetheless—and turned to Bilbo.

“Is there any more food, Mr Baggins?” he asked.

****

For the next little while, Bilbo was kept busy fetching and carrying and cooking, and generally performing the duties of a good host, and, while he was still a little put-out at having to be a host at all, nonetheless he found some comfort in the familiarity, and in knowing what it was he was expected to do next. The task of feeding his guests also helped to distract him from the unpleasant mixture of fear and fury he felt in his heart when he thought of Thorin Oakenshield and his attempts to take his nephews back out into the winter woods, with, so far as Bilbo could ascertain, no shelter to aim for. He was afraid, too, of what Thorin had said, about the dwarf who was not Mr Bofur coming back, perhap with friends, and what they would do then. And his mind was still full of confusion regarding just what had happened to little Fili and Kili, why they had been kidnapped, why a dwarf might care so very much about them that he would travel all the way to the Shire to attempt to recapture them. But there were no answers to any of his questions, and he did not feel quite brave enough to ask Thorin, and so he simply fetched and carried and cooked, and every now and then peered into the living room to make sure the dwarves had not absconded while he was not looking, and tried not to think about it all too hard.

At last, he had enough food to consider it a worthy breakfast, and was laying it out on the table in the kitchen when he became suddenly aware of being watched. He looked round sharply, and saw Dwalin in the doorway, leaning rather casually against the doorframe but staring intently at Bilbo.

“Oh!” Bilbo said, then was forced to take a moment to calm his hammering heart. “Oh, hello. Breakfast is almost ready.”

Dwalin eyed the table. “Can you give it to him in there?” he asked, jerking his head at the living room.

“In the living room?” Bilbo asked. “There’s no table. Certainly it would be better in here.”

“Aye,” Dwalin said, frowning around the room. “Give it to him in there. He’s tired. He doesn’t need to move now.”

“Well, really—” Bilbo started, feeling all his irritation at the rudeness of his new guests begin to bubble to the surface, but then Mr Dwalin turned to glare at him, and he choked on the words. “—of course,” he managed at last, and began to gather up plates, wondering if he could find enough small tables to properly serve breakfast in the living room, and wondering if perhaps he hadn’t been foolish to stop Thorin from leaving, since he and his friend were such troublesome guests.

Although of course—of course he hadn’t. For, troublesome and intimidating and rude as Thorin and Mr Dwalin were, having them in his living room was a small price to pay for preserving the lives of the little dwarves. And so Bilbo sighed and picked up the plate of bacon.

“In the living room it is, then,” he muttered.

****

Breakfast was a quiet affair. Fili and Kili ate with their usual speed and then disappeared off somewhere to play. Mr Dwalin was sent to keep an eye on them, which left only Thorin and Bilbo finishing up the last of the food, wrapped in an uncomfortable silence. Bilbo found himself on the verge of making some kind of inconsequential remark a number of times, but never quite found the courage to speak, feeling somehow that this glowering, grim-faced dwarf was unlikely to appreciate small talk. And so, he ate, for want of anything else to do (and also because he was hungry, or, if not hungry, then at least not entirely full), and kept most of his attention focussed on his plate, until at last Thorin spoke. This was so sudden—at least to Bilbo’s mind—that Bilbo started a little, and did not hear what Thorin actually said.

“I’m sorry,” he said, looking up to find himself the object of a steady gaze that left him feeling rather like a fly in a spiderweb. “Could you repeat that?”

“I asked if you could tell me anything about what happened to my nephews before you met them,” Thorin said.

“Oh—oh, well, no,” Bilbo said. “No, not really, I’m afraid. Fili just told me they were lost, and trying to find their way back to a meeting place. Oh, but there is one thing.” He shuddered a little, remembering. “Fili told me that they met a man in the woods. I suppose this must have been—afer they escaped from—wherever it was they were before.” He launched into the story of the man in the woods, feeling rather ill as he told how Fili had rescued himself and his brother. Thorin, though, seemed unaffected, although his hand seemed to clench more tightly around his fork. “And that’s all I know,” Bilbo said, once he had finished the story. “I did ask, many times, but Fili has been extremely stubborn and refused to tell me almost anything about the two of them. Do you know, he even banned his brother from speaking for many days? He was afraid he might tell me something that Fili did not want me to know.”

Bilbo had rather expected Thorin to be surprised by this, and indeed, it seemed he was, a little. But a moment later, a small smile crept onto his face, and he nodded to himself.

“Good lad,” he murmured.

Bilbo had no answer to this, for although he found Fili’s stubborn secrecy quite irritating, and to see an adult encouraging it even more so, yet he could not forget that it had been his own dismissal of the danger that faced the little dwarves that had led to the dwarf who was not Mr Bofur finding them. He reminded himself that he did not yet know the reasons for everything that these dwarves were doing—and perhaps he never would—but given what had happened last time he had made foolish assumptions, perhaps he ought to give them the benefit of the doubt. But this, of course, simply led him back to the question of why the little dwarves were in such danger to begin with. Why should they, two ragged little children, be so coveted by strange dwarves that they should be kidnapped once and almost a second time? Bilbo could not understand it, and, since Thorin had asked a question of him first, he decided he might be so bold as to return the favour.

“That dwarf who came here yesterday,” he said. “Do you know who he was?”

Thorin watched him for a moment, then nodded. “I do,” he said.

“He was—one of the ones that kidnapped the boys before?” Bilbo asked, and got another grave nod for his trouble. He took a moment to work up his courage, and then spoke again.

“Why should they want to kidnap the children in the first place?” he asked. “I do not understand any of this. Nothing at all.”

Thorin frowned at him, and Bilbo did his best to return his gaze. But there was something about Thorin’s stare that made him feel—rather small, and foolish, and maybe a little clumsy, and certainly quite flustered and uncomfortable. So he looked into the fire instead, and hoped that Thorin could not tell why he had done so. Whether Thorin did or not, he made no mention of it. Instead, to Bilbo’s surprise, he answered his question.

“We have been exiles for many years, Mr Baggins,” he said. “Well over a hundred years, now. We were very poor at first, wandering and lost. But we have built a life for ourselves in the Blue Mountains. We prosper, we grow. We live. But it is not our kingdom, not our home. Do you understand?”

“Er,” said Bilbo, who in fact did not understand at all, “yes, of course.”

“Of course,” Thorin said. “It is not our kingdom. And one day, the time will come to win our kingdom back. But not all of my people understand this. They have grown content. They have food in their bellies, steady work, a roof over their heads. They have lost the fire that tells them to take back what is rightfully theirs. They wish only to live an easy life.” He sighed. “Perhaps I should not blame them for it.”

Privately, Bilbo thought an easy life with plenty of food sounded perfectly agreeable, but he was rather lost by Thorin’s solemn pronouncements, and did not want to make it obvious that he was lost, and so he kept silent, and hoped that if Thorin spoke on he would soon start to understand.

“But there are others,” Thorin said. “Others who only care for power. Aye, even among our own people. They are not many in number—fewer than those who long for ease, that is certainly true—but they have ambition that the others do not, and it has been easy for them to convince the others that they have a common cause. A common enemy.”

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said, since he felt that it seemed like an appropriate juncture for an oh dear.

“Indeed,” Thorin said (and Bilbo was privately pleased that he had got it right). “But of course, there is lineage to consider. They cannot simply kill me and hope to prevail. But I have no children, and Fili—he is my sister’s son. And he is young, very young, barely twenty. Easy to manipulate, easy to control.”

Bilbo blinked. “Twenty?” he said. “Surely not.”

“He is very mature for his age,” Thorin said. “He has had to bear a great deal of responsibility. But indeed, he was twenty only last year, though I know he seems older.”

“Er,” Bilbo said, but Thorin did not seem to be listening to him, which perhaps was for the best.

“I do not know for sure, Mr Baggins,” Thorin said. “I will not know until I have spoken to the lads about their experiences. But it seemed to me that when we were attacked, it was not for the purpose of murdering us. The attackers—they swept through our camp as if they were looking for something, and when they did not find it, they left as quickly as they had come.”

Bilbo swallowed. “What were they looking for?” he asked.

“I do not know,” Thorin said. “But I suspect they found it not far away.” He closed his eyes and pinched his nose between his thumb and forefinger, looking suddenly exhausted. “I sent them away, Mr Baggins,” he said. “I sent them out into the dark, where they were easy prey. And for months—for months we have not know what became of them. For months we have been so afraid—”

Bilbo, who had been rather distracted trying to disentangle the meaning for what Thorin was saying, felt suddenly very sorry for the dwarf who sat before him. Certainly he had been furious with him before—even before he had known who he was, wondering who on earth could have simply lost two helpless children in the woods—but now he saw that his anger at Thorin was unnecessary, for Thorin’s anger at himself was clearly written upon his face. And now Bilbo imagined what it might be like, to lose Fili and Kili, and not know where they had gone or what their fate had been. He had almost lost them himself, once, and it had been terrifying enough, and he had only known them for a few weeks. For a member of their family—oh, no, it was too terrible to imagine.

And so Bilbo did not imagine it any further, but only reached out and tentatively touched Thorin’s arm.

“They did not die,” he said. “They are safe now, and well-fed, and they are none the worse for wear.”

Thorin opened his eyes, then, and gave a bitter laugh. “None the worse for wear, aye,” he said. “Except that Kili cannot go outside without choking on the very air he breathes.”

“Well, he will get better,” Bilbo said. “You mustn’t blame yourself.”

Thorin, though, just settled into a brooding silence, and Bilbo—though he still did not really understand much of what Thorin had said, or why the children had been kidnapped in the first place, except that it seemed that Thorin thought it was Fili in particular they wanted—did not quite dare to continue his line of questioning, and instead began to clear the plates away, trying not to clatter them too loudly.

And by the time he got back from doing the washing up, Thorin had fallen asleep.

****

After that, the morning was rather quiet. There were occasional crashes and shrieks from the depths of the hobbit hole, where the children were playing (and, Bilbo surmised from the fact that the shrieks were sometimes preceded by deep-throated roars, Mr Dwalin might be playing, too), but other than that, there was little noise to break the snowy silence for at least an hour. The fire began to die down, though, and Bilbo found himself a little cold. He rose to fetch more wood, and when he returned, he found the flames extinguished almost completely, and something of a chill in the air in the living room. He turned to apologise to Thorin, only to find him still asleep, a sheen of sweat standing out on his forehead.

Bilbo frowned at this, and remembered, suddenly, how Thorin had fallen to his knees earlier in the day, a fact which had become rather buried in his memory by everything else that had happened before and since. The dwarf was tired, that was certainly clear—too tired to move to the kitchen, Bilbo remembered Mr Dwalin saying—but seeing him now sweating in the cooling air, Bilbo suddenly worried that there might be something else the matter with him, and, without thinking too hard about it, he reached out and laid a hand on Thorin’s forehead. He had a great deal more experience now with the appropriate temperatures of dwarves than he had when Kili had lain feverish in his guest room, and the moment his palm touched Thorin’s skin, he understood that things were not as they should be.

“Oh dear,” he muttered to himself, removing his hand and then placing it back on Thorin’s forehead just to make sure. But there was no doubting it: Thorin was far too hot, and sleeping in the middle of the day, to boot. “Master dwarf?” Bilbo said, shaking him a little by the shoulder. But Thorin did not stir, and Bilbo had not quite the courage required to shake him harder. “Oh dear,” he said again, and then went to seek some aid.

He found the other dwarves gathered in the little bedroom with the window through the wall into the next room. Fili was sitting on the bed wearing a pillow-case on his head for some reason, and Kili was tugging at Mr Dwalin’s hand, while Mr Dwalin frowned down at him.

“Why d’you keep whispering?” Mr Dwalin asked.

“I’m not allowed to talk,” Kili whispered.

“You are talking, laddie,” Mr Dwalin said.

Kili looked a little outraged at this. “No, I’m not!” he whispered.

At this moment, Bilbo cleared his throat and all three dwarves looked around. Kili beamed at him, and even Fili smiled a little. Something seemed to have lightened in his face since his uncle arrived, and Bilbo was very glad to see it, and sorry to be the bearer of news that might turn out to be bad. But there was no use upsetting the children until absolutely necessary, and so he turned to Mr Dwalin.

“Could I have a word with you in private?” he asked.

Mr Dwalin grunted, then scowled at the children. “Don’t break anything,” he said, and following Bilbo out into the dark hall. “What’s this about, Mr Baggins?”

“Perhaps it would be easier to show you,” Bilbo said, and led him through to the living room, where Thorin was still sleeping in the armchair, a slight frown on his face. “I think he might be ill.”

Mr Dwalin reached out and touched Thorin’s forehead, then sighed heavily. He muttered something in the dwarvish tongue, glaring at Thorin, then turned to Bilbo.

“Do you have a bed?” he asked.

“Several,” Bilbo said. “He is ill, then?”

“He’s—” Mr Dwalin said, and then said something else in the dwarvish language that did not sound entirely complimentary. He turned back to Thorin and shook him by the shoulder, much harder than Bilbo had dared. “Wake up,” he said. “Time to move.”

Thorin’s frown deepened, and then he jerked a little and opened his eyes, peering blearily up at Mr Dwalin. “Oin’s here?” he asked.

“We haven’t sent for him yet,” Mr Dwalin said. “Get up. Here, I’ll help you.”

He bent and set his shoulder under Thorin’s arm, and Thorin—though he seemed still confused and not a little irritated—stumbled to his feet with a stifled groan. Mr Dwalin raised an eyebrow at Bilbo, and Bilbo hastily directed him towards the guest bedroom, and followed them as they made their shambling, unsteady way there. When they reached it, Mr Dwalin grunted in approval at the freshly made bed, and laid Thorin upon it with so little regard for gentleness that the bedsprings—designed with hobbits in mind—creaked alarmingly. The bed held, though, and Thorin seemed to have fallen asleep again as soon as he lay down, so that he did not shift about and lead to any more strain on the unfortunate springs.

“Help me with his boots,” Mr Dwalin said, and Bilbo hastened to do so, though he found it difficult indeed to unpick the various fastenings of the boots—after all, he was rather inexperienced. By the time he had completed the task, and removed the right boot, Mr Dwalin had long finished with the left, and had moved on to removing Thorin’s outer tunic. Thorin groaned at this, though he did not wake, and, looking up from the boot in his hands, Bilbo saw that the side of his undershirt was dark with blood.

“Oh—” he whispered, feeling his stomach lurch. But Mr Dwalin paid him no heed, only lifting the undershirt to reveal the skin beneath. Bilbo saw that Thorin’s side was marred by an ugly wound, partly healed in parts, with loose thread trailing out of the skin like roots out of freshly-turned earth. Around the wound, the skin looked red and tight, and Mr Dwalin muttered something to himself that sounded dark indeed.

“Stitches are burst,” he said. “There’s sickness in the wound.” He looked up at Bilbo, eyes sharp with anger. “You said you know a healer?”

“Oh—oh yes,” Bilbo said. “She looked after little Kili when he—but I don’t know if—”

Mr Dwalin nodded. “Fetch her,” he said. “We’ll have need.”

“Yes—yes,” Bilbo said. But he was staring at the wound, wondering how a such a thing could happen to a person. And, although perhaps there was more than one way—a nasty fall onto a garden implement, for example—he could only think of one that was plausible. But the wound, though not entirely new, was certainly not months old, and so could not be from the attack that the dwarves had suffered immediately before the children had been kidnapped. And this led Bilbo’s thoughts back to the conversation he had had with Thorin earlier in the day, and how little he had understood of it, and he found himself suddenly almost frantic to know just what it was that he did not understand.

“Mr Dwalin,” he said.

“Dwalin is fine,” Mr Dwalin said.

“Oh—yes, thank you,” Bilbo said. “When you were attacked—I asked Thorin, and he said—he thought perhaps the attackers wanted Fili all along. That they wanted to control him.”

Dwalin glanced up at him. “Aye, seems likely,” he said, sounding a little impatient.

“Well—I’m afraid I do not understand,” Bilbo said. “Why should they want to control Fili? He is only a child, after all.”

Dwalin frowned. “Aye,” he said. “A child who is heir to the throne of Erebor.”

“He—” Bilbo started, and then stopped, dumbfounded. “What?” he asked.

“He’s Thorin’s heir,” Dwalin said. “You knew that, aye?”

“Well, I—” Bilbo said. “But then—do you mean—Thorin is...”

“Thorin is in need of a healer,” Dwalin said. “And you are wasting time.”

“Yes—oh yes, of course,” Bilbo said, and he turned and hurried away. But, once he had pulled on his coat and hat and plunged out into the snowy world, he paused, halfway between the door and the gate, unsure whether it was the cold that was stealing the breath from his lungs or the sudden realisation, the sudden clarity in his mind. Dwalin had said that Fili was Thorin’s heir, and that Fili was also heir to a throne. But that meant that Thorin— That Thorin—

“Oh,” Bilbo whispered, bringing his hand up to cover his eyes and wishing heartily for something solid to lean on. “Oh bother.”

Chapter Text

When Lily opened her door to a shivering Bilbo, she looked really rather disgruntled.

“Bilbo Baggins,” she said. “You have let your little dwarf get ill again, then, have you?”

Bilbo, who had been preparing to beg for assistance, found himself suddenly bristling instead. “It wasn’t me that—” he started, and then shook his head, remembering his purpose. “It is their uncle,” he said. “He’s wounded.”

Lily raised her eyebrows. “Is he?” she said. “Did my sister hit him with her frying pan after all?”

“No, no,” Bilbo said. “No, he was wounded before he came here, as far as I can tell. The wound was healing, but it seems he has wrenched it or—” He paused, wondering if the damage had been done the night before when he had attacked Thorin. “Well, anyway, he needs a healer,” he said.

“Hmph,” Lily said. “Dwarves do seem to be troublesome creatures. Is there a fever?”

Bilbo nodded. “The wound is inflamed, I think,” he said.

“I see,” Lily said. “Wait here.”

She disappeared into the hobbit hole she shared with her elderly father, and Bilbo waited on the doorstep, hopping from one foot to the other to keep warm. By the time Lily reappeared, the tips of his ears had gone quite numb, and his nose was threatening to follow suit. But he was rather more concerned by the idea that he might have inadvertently caused the injury to his dwarven guest—and, of course, by the fact that he was a king. A king! Bilbo still could not quite countenance it, that there was a king under his roof. A king to whom, if his surmise was correct, he might have dealt quite an unpleasant wound.

And of course, if Thorin was a king, then that meant Fili and Kili were princes. Oh, no, that could not be right at all. Bilbo could perhaps almost imagine that Fili was the child of some important person—after all, he was so very serious at times, and quite dignified—but Kili? The child who could not be prevented from smearing jam all over himself at any given opportunity? Who wished to catch frogs and insects and worms and keep them in his bed? Oh, no, Bilbo must have somehow misunderstood. Certainly he must.

“Well, I am ready,” announced Lily, appearing at the door with her basket, and then frowning at him. “Why are you standing out here in the cold? There is a perfectly good fire in the living room.”

“You told me to—” Bilbo started, but then Lily swept past him, and he decided not to argue, and instead to hurry up the hill behind her, his breath producing great plumes in the freezing air.

“In here,” he said, once they had reached Bag End and shaken the snow off their feet. He led the way into the room where Thorin still lay, Dwalin looming beside him like a malevolent spirit. Thorin was unconscious still, but his face seemed drawn with pain even in his sleep, and his skin had an unhealthy tinge to it.

“Hmph,” Lily said, peering down at him, then looking up at Dwalin. “And who might you be?”

“You’re the healer?” Dwalin asked. “He’s ripped the stitches.”

He gestured at Thorin’s side, and Lily strode around the bed and bent over the wound, frowning.

“Well, he is very foolish,” she said.

Dwalin scowled at this, and Bilbo felt suddenly quite afraid. Lily, of course, spoke her mind at all times—and her mind was not always very kind or understanding—but to do so here, in front of this large, angry dwarf, and of course she did not know that Thorin was the king—oh dear—

“You mind your tongue,” Dwalin growled. Lily paused in her inspection of Thorin’s wound, eyebrows rising sharply. Then she dusted off her hands and stood up to her full height—which was really rather diminutive next to Dwalin’s towering bulk. Still, she seemed quite unabashed, and simply raised her chin to look him in the eye.

“I beg your pardon?” she said.

“Aye, so you should,” Dwalin said, fixing her with a gimlet stare. But Lily seemed unaffected, and simply stared back, until Bilbo began to feel quite uncomfortable.

“Oh dear!” he said, feeling the need to break the silence, but not really knowing how to do so. Both dwarf and hobbit turned to stare at him, and Bilbo immediately wished he hadn’t spoken. “Well—it’s terrible, isn’t it?” he said, gesturing at Thorin. “He does seem quite ill. Oh dear, and so on.”

Dwalin frowned at him in puzzlement, but Lily’s attention was drawn back to Thorin, and she bent over him again.

“Quite ill, hmph,” she said. “The wound is diseased. It will need to be cleaned, and a poultice made. And the stitches will need to be repaired, of course. Hot water, Bilbo, and be quick about it.”

“Oh, of course,” Bilbo said. “Yes, of course.”

And he hurried out of the room, and quite glad he was to do so.

****

The water took far longer to heat than Bilbo would have liked, and all the while he imagined that any moment he might hear bloodcurdling cries from Thorin’s room as Lily and Dwalin finally came to blows. But in fact, the only thing he heard was the crackling of the fire, and so absorbed he became in listening to this that he did not realise he was not alone until he turned to fetch another log and almost fell over Kili.

“Oh!” he said. “What do you think you’re doing?”

Kili stepped back, looking startled and a little frightened, and Fili (who was standing beside him) immediately took a step forward and placed himself between Kili and Bilbo. Bilbo felt sorry at once, for he had spoken more sharply than was really warranted—out of surprise only—and had had no wish to terrorise the poor child. After all, it seemed both of them had had quite enough of that to last them a long time.

“I’m sorry,” Bilbo said. “You startled me. But it isn’t a good idea to stand so close behind someone, young master Kili, especially if they do not know you are there.”

Kili blinked up at him, his hand creeping out to clutch at his brother’s sleeve. “Where did Mr Dwalin go?” he asked.

“Hm?” Bilbo said.

“Mr Dwalin,” said Fili. “You took him away and we thought you’d be back soon, but you didn’t come back. And Uncle Thorin’s gone, too.”

“Have they gone away again?” Kili asked, his lower lip trembling a little.

“Oh! No, certainly not,” Bilbo said. “No, they are both still here. But your Uncle Thorin was—very tired, so he’s gone to take a nap. And Mr Dwalin has gone with him, to make sure he sleeps properly.” He paused, thinking that sounded rather odd, but to his surprise, Kili seemed to accept the explanation without question, and immediately looked very relieved. Fili, however, frowned a little, though he didn’t say anything.

“Well, why don’t the two of you go off and play?” Bilbo said. “But—in the back rooms, so that you don’t disturb your uncle. He is very tired.”

He shepherded them out of the room and back towards the dingy hall that wound its way into the hillside. Once he was satisfied that they were once more ensconced in one of the back bedrooms, he closed the door and hurried back to the kitchen, decanting some of the now steaming water into a bowl and collecting a number of cloths and towels for Lily, before returning as quickly as he could to the room where Thorin lay.

When he arrived there, he found things much the same. Dwalin stood glowering in the corner, watching Lily mistrustfully. Lily was rummaging in her basket, but when she heard the door, she turned.

“At last,” she said. “I was about to send this—” she gestured at Dwalin “—personage to search for you.”

Dwalin raised his eyebrows, perhaps at the notion that he might be available to be sent anywhere by Lily, but he did not speak, and Bilbo decided to ignore the simmering tension in the room in favour of presenting the water to Lily as quick as may be.

“I hope it is not too hot,” he said.

“The hotter the better,” Lily replied. She set the bowl down on the little table by the bed and scattered some leaves into it, then paused, counting under her breath, before stirring it and adding a few drops of something from a tiny bottle.

“Good,” she said, and soaked a cloth in the water, then turned back to bend over Thorin’s wound. But the moment she pressed the cloth to the wound, Thorin’s body stiffened and his eyes flew open. He let out a growl that sounded—to Bilbo, who had never actually heard such a thing—like a fell beast, wild with fury, and flung out his arm, catching Lily by the front of her coat and pulling her forward until they were nose-to-nose.

“You dare—?” he asked, but Bilbo saw that his eyes were glazed, his skin shining with sweat, and his words, while admittedly spoken with a force of rage that had Bilbo’s heart quailing, nonetheless sounded as though they were spoken by someone who could not quite make his tongue obey his commands.

Lily, meanwhile, did not falter—though even she seemed a little taken aback by the dwarf-king’s fury. “Calm down,” she said. “You won’t do yourself any good by playing the fool.”

Thorin’s eyes widened, and he raised his other hand with a pained-sounding grunt. But before he could strike Lily, Dwalin stepped forward and seized his wrist.

“Thorin,” he said quietly.

Thorin turned to stare at him. “What—?” he said.

“She’s a healer,” Dwalin said. “Let her do her work.”

Thorin turned back to look at Lily. His face was still black with rage, but there was confusion beneath it now. “I do not need a healer,” he said, fingers flexing on Lily’s coat.

“Aye,” Dwalin said, his voice still low. “You do.”

Thorin’s scowl was enough to make Bilbo afraid for Lily’s life. And yet, to his surprise, after a long, tense moment, Thorin loosed his grip on Lily’s coat, and sank back against the pillows.

“Then heal me,” he said, sounding as though the words cost him some effort.

Lily straightened, dusting herself off and looking most unimpressed. “I begin to see where those children get their manners,” she said, but did not say anything further, for which Bilbo was really quite grateful. Instead, she turned her attention back to Thorin’s wound, and then began to rummage in her basket. From it, she drew a small bottle that seemed familiar to Bilbo, although he could not quite place it. Could not place it, that was, until she uncorked it and leaned over Thorin, holding it to his nose.

“Breathe in,” she said. “This will help with the fever.”

But, alas, Thorin might have had the manners of his young nephews, but he was older, more experienced, and apparently knew more of the healing arts than they did. For he took one breath and then growled, dashing the bottle from Lily’s hand. It fell to the floor and shattered, and Lily immediately covered her mouth and nose with her scarf.

“Do not breathe it,” she said sharply to Bilbo and Dwalin, turning her face away. “I need you awake.”

“But I should be asleep, is that it?” Thorin asked, and now he sat up and seemed to be trying to get out of the bed, though he turned pale even as he made the attempt, clutching at the bedstead. “You wish for me to be helpless and at your mercy?”

“Don’t be a fool,” Lily said—which of course did not help to calm Thorin in the slightest. He lurched to his feet, and then almost fell, and Dwalin leapt forward to catch him before he could hit the ground.

“Let me be,” Thorin growled, even as he leaned heavily on Dwalin. “Who is this—this woman, she—she would have me killed in my sleep.”

“She wants to save you some pain,” Dwalin said. “Your wound needs to be restitched. She comes to heal you, not to kill you.”

“I will not—be helpless—in this—” Thorin said, and then lurched abruptly forwards, perhaps attempting to lunge at Lily, perhaps simply losing his balance. Whichever it was, the result was that Dwalin half lost his grip, and Bilbo found himself running in to try to save the situation—though of course he had no hope of being able to take the full weight of a creature who was more than a foot taller than him, and much broader besides. But even if he had been capable, the chance to try and help Thorin was denied him. For the moment he grasped at Thorin’s arm, the dwarf king turned with a roar.

“Do not touch me!” he cried, and then something extraordinarily solid hit the bridge of Bilbo’s nose, and he stumbled back, stars blinking and burning before his eyes. He clapped his hands to his nose, eyes watering as pain radiated through his entire skull, and found himself unexpectedly sitting on the floor. Somewhere, someone cried out, a shrill sound that seemed to pierce through the sudden throbbing pain in Bilbo’s head, sharpening it into something almost unbearable. And then he heard Fili’s voice, high and panicked, calling his brother’s name.

“Kili,” Bilbo mumbled, trying to struggle to his feet, for the fear in Fili’s voice ignited the same emotion in his own heart. But as it turned out, there was no need for him to go searching for Kili: he closed his eyes against the spinning of his vision, and when he opened them, the little dwarf was standing in front of him, patting his cheek anxiously.

“Mr Bilbo,” he whispered. “Are you all right?”

Bilbo stared at him, blinking again in an attempt to clear his head. Kili nodded, patting him again on the arm, and then turned away, towards the bed. Thorin was now sitting on the edge of it, with Dwalin’s hand resting heavily on one of his shoulders. And now Kili scrambled up onto the bed, too, and prodded his uncle in the arm.

“Don’t hit Mr Bilbo,” he said, in an accusing whisper. “Mr Bilbo’s nice. You’re not supposed to hit nice people.”

Thorin turned to him, his face twisted in confusion. “Kili,” he said. “There you are. We’ve been looking for you.” And he reached out with his good arm, pulling Kili into an embrace.

But Kili, much as he generally seemed to enjoy being hugged, was not to be moved this time. He struggled against Thorin’s arm, shaking his head.

“No,” he insisted. “You’re not supposed to hit him. Why did you hit him?”

“Calm down,” Thorin said, tightening his grasp. “Speak sense.”

Bilbo rubbed his aching head, relieved at least that the moment of violence seemed have passed. But then Kili’s struggles suddenly took on a more frantic aspect.

“No—no,” he said, no longer whispering, but crying out, high-pitched and afraid. “No, let go! No, he’s got me, Fili! Fili!”

Fili—who must have been close by as all of this was occurring, though Bilbo had not noticed him in amongst everything else—appeared at Thorin’s side, his face set and pale. He held up his hands as if to take Kili, but Thorin seemed not to see him, only frowning at the struggling dwarf child in his arms.

“Behave yourself,” he said sharply, and then suddenly grunted, all the colour draining from his face, from which Bilbo surmised that Kili’s struggles must have hurt his wound in some way. Dwalin, it seemed, had come to the same conclusion, for he reached down and took hold of Kili, plucking him from Thorin’s arms. Thorin, bent over now in pain, gave little resistance, but Kili’s distress redoubled, and he writhed in Dwalin’s hands, kicking out with his feet.

“They’ve got me,” he wailed. “They’ve got me, no, no, they’ll take me away!”

“What ails you, lad?” Dwalin asked, trying to embrace the child. But the attempt only led to Kili letting out an ear-splitting shriek, and Fili, fairly trembling with anxiety now, grabbing at Dwalin’s sleeve.

“Mr Dwalin, give him to me,” he said. “Give him to me, please, he’s dreaming. Please, he’s dreaming.”

“What do you mean, dreaming?” Dwalin asked. But he held Kili out, and Fili snatched him and cradled him against his hip, wrapping one arm tightly around him and stroking his hair with his other hand.

“You’re safe, you’re safe,” he crooned. “No-one’s taking you. I’ve got you now, I’ve got you.”

“Hmph,” said Lily, whose presence Bilbo had almost forgotten. “Bilbo, let me look at you.” She knelt on the floor, and Bilbo squinted at her and tried not to squeak too loudly when she touched his nose. But as she sat there, she whispered to him. “Are you safe?” she said.

It took a moment for Bilbo to understand what she meant. “Oh,” he whispered. “Yes, I do believe it was an accident. I think he does not quite understand where he is.”

Lily nodded, pressing her fingers against his neck. “And the children?” she whispered.

“Yes, he seems to love them very much,” Bilbo replied. “He will not hurt them, I am sure.”

Lily did not speak for a moment, her lips pursed as she stared at Bilbo. Then she sat back on her heels.

“Well, then,” she said, “I think you should take them out. They do not need to be witness to this.”

“Yes—oh, yes, I quite agree,” Bilbo said. He rather thought he did not want to be witness to this, either, and certainly he did not wish to sustain any further injuries, and so he was quite grateful to be assigned to a task that would require him to be somewhere else. He climbed to his feet, with help from Lily, and then skirted Thorin and Dwalin as widely as possible to reach the two little dwarves, Kili huddled in Fili’s arms and sobbing now into his neck.

“Well,” he said, putting a gentle hand on Fili’s shoulder. “Let’s get your brother somewhere less frightening, shall we?”

Fili looked up at him, and Bilbo saw on his face the struggle that tore at his heart. It made Bilbo’s own heart ache a little, to see once again how great a burden the young dwarf bore. He knelt before him (hoping that he would be capable of rising again) and did his best to look wise. “I think your brother needs you more than your uncle does at this moment,” he said. “I am sure your uncle would agree. He has your Mr Dwalin, after all, and I am sure he will not let anything bad happen to him.”

This seemed to be enough for Fili, and he allowed Bilbo to shepherd him out into the hall. When Bilbo leaned in to close the door, he saw that Dwalin was pushing Thorin back to lie on the bed, and Thorin was reaching out towards him.

“The lads,” he mumbled. “Did I dream it?”

But he did not hear Dwalin’s reply, for he was far more concerned with the lads in question. He closed the door and turned to them, finding Fili watching him, white-faced, Kili still crying into his neck.

“My uncle,” Fili said.

“He is safe,” Bilbo said. “He’s in safe hands, I promise you. Lily saved your brother, after all, did she not? And I will tell you everything. But first we must help Kili.”

And he led Fili through to the living room, and thence to the kitchen, for he felt that the children should be far enough away from the room where Thorin lay that they would not hear him if he cried out in pain. What was more, the fire was crackling merrily in the kitchen, and, once Bilbo had dragged an armchair in, it seemed bright and warm and cosy, and altogether unlike the room they had just left.

“Now,” Bilbo said, setting about making some tea, “is Kili still dreaming?”

“I’m not dreaming,” Kili whispered, and he snuffled and raised his head from Fili’s shoulder. He looked quite a state, tear-ravaged and thoroughly rumpled. “I’m not asleep, it’s daytime.”

“But you had a dream,” Fili said. “You were dreaming when we saw uncle.”

Kili stared at him, face set in an unhappy frown. “I thought we were in the woods,” he whispered. “But we weren’t. It wasn’t a dream, but we weren’t there.”

Fili nodded. “Mr Bilbo’s going to make us some tea,” he said, as if this would solve the problem. Then he took Kili’s doll from his pocket—how she had got there, Bilbo had no idea—and tucked her into the front of Kili’s shirt, so that only the top of her head was peeking out. “There.”

Kili snuffled again, and wiped his nose on his sleeve, then rearranged himself so that he was sitting next to Fili in the chair, pressed up against his side. He still looked quite forlorn, but the promise of tea and the presence of his doll seemed to have lifted the gloom that hung about him a little. “Why did uncle hit Mr Bilbo?” he asked in a loud whisper.

Fili looked worried. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe—” But it seemed he could not invent a reason, and so he just turned and stared at Bilbo. “Why did he hit you?”

“Well,” Bilbo said, setting two cups of tea down beside them and then drawing up a stool to the fire, “I’m afraid your uncle is also dreaming while he’s awake.”

Fili’s look of worry only increased at this, but Kili nodded, looking satisfied.

“Yes,” he said. “So he thought you were someone else. He thought you were mean.”

“He did, I believe,” Bilbo said. “I suppose it must be quite upsetting, to see things that aren’t really there.”

Kili huddled down into the chair a little at this, and Fili put an arm around him, pulling him close.

“Why do people dream while they’re awake, Mr Bilbo?” he asked. “I didn’t know other people did it. I thought it was just Kili.”

“Well, in your uncle’s case, it’s because he is rather ill,” Bilbo said, deciding that there was no point trying to protect the children from the truth any more. “Sometimes, when people are ill, they get quite confused.”

“Is he ill?” Kili asked. “Why is he ill? Uncle Thorin doesn’t get ill.”

“Everybody gets ill sometimes,” Bilbo said, but Kili shook his head firmly.

“No,” he said. “Uncle Thorin doesn’t.”

Bilbo raised his eyebrows and looked at Fili for support, but Fili looked like he agreed with Kili, and Bilbo remembered how once upon a time he had insisted that dwarves never got ill. Of course, this had been thoroughly proven wrong since then, but even so, Bilbo supposed that it might be difficult for children to let go of beliefs so firmly held, even if they were clearly incorrect.

“He has been injured, in his side,” Bilbo said, touching his own side to demonstrate. “Sometimes when people get hurt, if they do not take good enough care of the wound, it becomes inflamed and makes them ill.”

“He didn’t take good enough care?” Fili asked, looking worried all over again.

“We can go and take care of him, so then he’ll be better,” Kili said, making as if to get out of the chair. But Fili seized him by the arm and pulled him back.

“No,” he said. “You’ve got to stay here.” He looked in the general direction of Thorin’s room, and then back at Kili, clearly torn as to his own responsibilities.

“But Mr Bilbo said he’s hurt his side, and he needs to take care, and he’s dreaming so maybe he won’t know,” Kili said. “So we can take care of him.”

Fili, though, had apparently made his decision: he pulled Kili into his lap and put both arms around him. “Mr Bilbo will take care of him,” he declared. “Won’t you?”

Both dwarves turned to look at Bilbo, Kili’s eyes trusting, Fili’s wide and worried. And although the last thing Bilbo wanted to do was go back into the room where Thorin lay, and although he really did try to harden his heart, he found it impossible to say what he truly felt in the face of such a determined assault.

“Of course I will,” he said, getting to his feet with a sinking heart.

“And Miss Lily will make your nose better,” Kili added. “Because it looks funny now.”

“Does it, indeed?” Bilbo asked, and touched the bridge of his nose gingerly. He sighed. “Well, you two must promise me you will stay out of mischief. Promise, now!”

Kili nodded eagerly, and Fili followed suit, though with more deliberation.

“I’ll make sure he doesn’t start dreaming again,” he murmured.

“Good,” Bilbo said. And with that, being a practical hobbit as he was, he set to one side the vexing issue of Kili’s dreaming while he was awake, and turned to the more straightforward problem of his injured, intransigent guest. Making his way to Thorin’s room, he paused at the door and listened a moment. He fancied he heard a deep, painful groan, and he closed his eyes a moment and drew a deep breath. Then, hoping he would not be subject to another blow to the face, he pushed the door open.

Inside, Thorin lay on his back, with Dwalin leaning over him, hands pressing down on his shoulders. Holding him down, Bilbo realised. Thorin’s face was almost grey under a sheen of sweat, and his jaw was clenched so tightly that Bilbo was amazed it did not crack. Even so, as Bilbo entered, he let out another groan, and Bilbo quickly closed the door so that the children would not hear.

“Aye, keep it closed,” Dwalin said, apparently to Bilbo, though he was still staring at Thorin. Bilbo saw that Lily was bent over Thorin’s wound, and now she straightened a little, apparently having finished cleaning it, and began to thread a needle.

“Of course,” she said, as if continuing a conversation, “if you had not been so foolish as to break my spirit bottle, you would be peacefully asleep by now and none of us would have to endure this unpleasantness.”

Thorin’s eyes rolled in their sockets, his hands clenching and unclenching at his sides, and Dwalin shifted his grip and murmured something that sounded like aye, well, she’s got a point, though Bilbo felt sure he must have misheard.

“What can I do?” Bilbo asked, feeling quite useless. “The children sent me to—take care of their uncle, but—well—what can I do?”

“Help me hold him,” Dwalin said. “Get his feet.”

Bilbo hurried to do just that, though he thought it very unlikely that he would have the strength to hold the dwarf king down if it came to it. But as he moved to follow Dwalin’s command, Lily bent and made the first stitch, and Thorin let out a strangled noise and reached out. Bilbo thought for a moment that he was about to be the recipient of another blow, and he raised his hands to cover his face. But to his amazement, rather than strike him, Thorin seized his hand, and held it in his own, squeezing it tightly enough that Bilbo let out a surprised squeak.

“Oh,” he said. “I—”

But then Lily made the next stitch, and Thorin’s eyes closed, his body stiffening, and his hand tightening even further on Bilbo’s. And Bilbo, unsure what to do for the best, brought his other hand up and patted Thorin’s clenched fist.

“Well, I suppose I will stay here,” he said.

Stay there he did, and he would not have been able to move even if he had wanted to, for Thorin kept such a fierce hold on his hand throughout the whole process of stitching that the only way he might have escaped it would have been by removing the limb in question (which seemed rather drastic). At times, Bilbo became afraid that Thorin would break his bones, for the stitching seemed to be an exceedingly painful process, and the dwarf king retained remarkable strength despite his poorly state. Indeed, Bilbo had to stifle his own cries more than once, and craned his neck rather desperately to see how much longer Lily would take.

But at last, she cut the thread and straightened, nodding to herself. “Well, I will make the poultice,” she said, beginning to clear her things away. “And then we will see.”

Dwalin let go of Thorin’s shoulders, and Thorin’s entire body seemed suddenly to sag into the bed. His hair was soaked with sweat, stuck down to his forehead, and his pallor was quite alarming. Still, he let go of Bilbo’s hand, and Bilbo felt quite grateful, swallowing an exclamation of his own and trying to cradle the hand to his chest without being too obvious about it. But moment later, he found himself seized again—this time by the front of his shirt—and dragged forwards, until he was face to face with Thorin. He found himself transfixed by the dwarf’s stare, glazed and not entirely focussed, but somehow still remarkable in its intensity.

“Mr Baggins,” Thorin said. “The lads?”

“Er—yes, they’re—not here,” Bilbo said. “But they’re safe—they’re quite safe, I promise.”

Thorin’s eyes closed then, and he murmured something in the language that Fili sometimes used. It always sounded odd coming from such a young child, but Thorin’s voice made it sound like the tongue of the earth itself, solid and deep and dark. Then there was another hand on his shoulder, and Dwalin was pulling him away, looking him up and down.

“I don’t think it’s broken,” he said, and it took a moment for Bilbo to understand that he meant his nose, not his hand. “He’ll be sorry when he realises what he’s done.”

Bilbo opened his mouth to say it was nothing, really, but then he closed it again. Good manners were one thing, but allowing a guest to strike you in the face without even a murmur of protest was quite another. “Well,” he said, “I must say I am rather sorry already.”

Dwalin stared at him a moment, then nodded. “Aye,” he said. “Me too.”

Thorin spoke again, but when Bilbo looked at him, his eyes were still closed, and he seemed to be asleep. Lily leaned over and laid a hand on his forehead.

“Hm, fever,” she said. “Is there hot water in the kitchen?”

“Yes, of course,” Bilbo said. “And—the children are in there, too. Will you keep an eye on them?”

Lily nodded, then collected her basket and made for the door, leaving Dwalin and Bilbo alone with Thorin. Dwalin reached over and tested Thorin’s temperature for himself, then grunted and turned to Bilbo.

“And why aren’t you looking after the lads?” he asked. “Or at least going somewhere less miserable.”

“Oh,” Bilbo said. “Well—in fact, they asked me to look after their uncle. There’s nothing I can do, of course—I do not know anything about healing, let alone healing dwarves—but, well—they asked me.”

Dwalin watched him silently for a long moment. Then he turned and picked up a chair, placing it beside Bilbo.

“Might as well be comfortable,” he said, and then took up a position leaning against the wall, watching Thorin with a frown. Bilbo, rather surprised, sat down in the chair and then wondered what to do next. Thorin lay silent, but the sweat still stood out on his forehead, and even in his sleep his face seemed drawn with pain.

“Is he really a king?” Bilbo asked.

Dwalin glanced at him. “You didn’t know?” he said.

“No, I—well, I don’t know anything about dwarves, you see. And Fili and Kili certainly were very careful never to tell me anything.”

Dwalin gave a thoughtful nod. “Fili’s a good lad,” he said. “Good head on his shoulders.” He turned his attention to Bilbo. “A king, aye. King Under the Mountain. Have you heard of that?”

Slowly, Bilbo shook his head.

“Well, then,” Dwalin said. “Let me tell you.”

Chapter Text

“Have you heard of a land called Erebor?” Dwalin asked. Bilbo, wishing not to seem too terribly ignorant, made a face as though he was not quite sure (though in truth he had no memory of ever having heard the name), and Dwalin nodded. “The Lonely Mountain, it is in the common tongue,” he said.

“Oh!” Bilbo said, groping after a brief spark of recognition. He frowned, and then seized on the memory―little Kili, touching the map where a mountain stood all by itself, far to the east. “Oh, yes. Yes, I know where that is.”

Dwalin did not smile, but Bilbo thought perhaps he was pleased. “Our kingdom,” he said. “Thorin is King Under the Mountain.”

“Oh,” Bilbo said, and then shook his head. “But―it is very far away. Many hundreds of leagues, surely? You have not come so far?” He remembered how he had dismissed out of hand the idea that it could be Kili’s home―for how could the children have travelled such a long way? And then why did they know dwarves who lived in the Blue Mountains?

“Aye, we have,” Dwalin said, but then, seeing Bilbo’s look of confusion, he elaborated. “More than a hundred years ago, now. It was Thorin’s grandfather’s kingdom when we were young dwarves. He lived to see it taken from him, and to lead our people to a wandering life. But it was Thorin who led us here, to the west, and gave us the lives we have now.”

Bilbo felt quite unenlightened by this. “Taken from him?” he said.

Dwalin’s face darkened. “A dragon,” he said, voice deep with anger. “A dragon from the north. He came without warning, and drove us out with fire and blood. We could do nothing to save our kingdom―or many of our kin.”

Bilbo felt his throat go rather dry. He had read of dragons, of course―indeed, very much loved some of the stories which featured them. But to imagine one, alive and very much real, attacking the dwarves―these dwarves, the ones who now breathed the very same air as Bilbo―well, it was quite a different matter, and one that made his heart thud painfully in his chest.

“Oh dear,” he managed, and, though he felt that was a little inadequate, he could not invent any other words to commiserate with someone whose home was stolen by a dragon, of all things.

Dwalin, though, did not seem offended, but only nodded darkly. “I have had the taste of ash on my tongue since that day,” he said. “Thorin, too.” He turned to look at the dwarf king, where he lay on the bed, and Bilbo followed suit. Thorin looked quite unwell, now, skin a greyish-white and hair soaked in sweat. He shifted restlessly, mumbling something, and Dwalin laid a hand on his arm.

“No fear, now,” he murmured. “I’ll watch over the lads.”

Whether that had been Thorin’s concern in his fevered dreams or not, Dwalin’s words seemed to calm him, and for a moment there was stillness. Then Dwalin turned back to Bilbo.

“We wandered,” he said. “We searched for a home. We tried to reclaim other homes, other kingdoms stolen from us.” He sighed. “We did not prevail. We are hardy folk, Mr Baggins, but we are not overburdened with good fortune.”

A deep, obscure sorrow stirred in Bilbo’s heart at this. He still did not really understand a great deal of what Dwalin was telling him―so much of this history was still shrouded in darkness―but nonetheless, the tone of Dwalin’s voice, the set of his shoulders, the glint of his eye―it was enough to tell Bilbo of the great pain that he bore. Bilbo tried to imagine what it might be like, to lose a home―to be driven from Bag End, for example, or indeed away from the Shire entirely―and found his thoughts refused to entertain such a profoundly painful idea for very long.

“I’m terribly sorry,” he said, thinking now of the young dwarves in the kitchen. How old had Thorin said Fili was? Had they experienced any of these things?

“There was a great battle,” Dwalin said, “and at its end, none were standing of the House of Durin but Thorin and his sister, Dis. And so he was our king, and he led us out of misfortune, and brought us to the Blue Mountains. There we worked, all of us from the lowest to the highest, even Thorin himself. There is no honour in idleness when your people are starving. And we became prosperous, and flourished, after a fashion. But we were not content.” He shook his head. “We will not be content. Not until we regain our kingdom.”

Bilbo began to understand a little more. Kili, touching the little drawing of the far-away mountain on the map, but Fili talking of Mr Bofur, who lived in the Blue Mountains, and the two of them being here at all, in the west. Two little lost dwarves, far from home, so he had thought, but he had not conceived of how far from home they truly were, and all their people with them. Dwalin’s tone as he spoke was heavy, filled with sorrow and pride all intertwined, and it brought a rush of sympathy to Bilbo’s heart. And, too, he began to remember some of the things Thorin had told him, before he fell ill, and to think maybe he might understand these, too.

“Thorin said that there were some who wanted to stay in the Blue Mountains,” he said. “Did he? Or did I misunderstand?”

“No, you did not,” Dwalin said. “Aye, there are some amongst our people who have grown content to be prosperous, and care no longer for the kingdom that is rightfully ours. All know that Thorin has sworn he will one day regain it, but until twenty years ago, there were some that quietly hoped, in their comfort and peace, that he might die of old age before ever the time came to travel down that road.”

“Oh,” Bilbo said, finding himself leaning forward in his chair. “And what happened twenty years ago?”

Dwalin fixed him with a dark look. “Twenty years ago, Fili was born,” he said.

Bilbo raised his eyebrows―not least because he was still quite shocked at how old Fili was. “But you make it sound so very portentous,” he said. “Surely it was a happy event?”

“Aye,” Dwalin said, and then his face softened a little, and he seemed for a moment to be looking at something that Bilbo could not see. “Happy, aye,” he murmured. But whatever memories he had been recalling, he quickly returned to himself. “An heir,” he said. “Thorin never found himself a wife, never showed any interest in getting an heir. Dutiful in all things but one.” He scowled at Thorin for a moment, then sighed. “But Dis―she fell in love, and married, and Fili was born a prince in exile. A child who changed everything.”

“Because he gave the people hope?” Bilbo asked, feeling quite caught up in the story.

Dwalin frowned. “In a way,” he said. “And because he took it away.”

Bilbo sat back, feeling confused again. “I don’t understand,” he said.

“When it seemed that Thorin would die without an heir, those who did not care for the danger and effort of retaking Erebor hoped it might never come to that,” Dwalin said. “The throne would pass to Dain, son of Nain, Lord of the Iron Hills, far to the east. Dain visited Erebor when still we held it, but he is not from our kingdom, he does not feel its call in his bones as Thorin does, as I do. He has his own concerns, his own kingdom; why should he care to risk it all to regain something that was never his in the first place? And so the idle and the timid comforted themselves with the hope that Thorin would never find the right time, and Dain would never care to, and they would be free to live out their days in comfort. But Fili―Fili is a son of Erebor, born to be King Under the Mountain. A child such as this, raised by his mother and uncle, both of them bound and determined to instill in him a love for the kingdom that is rightfully his? On the day he was born, and brought before the people, there could no longer be any doubt that we would take back what is ours, or die in the attempt.”

Even though Bilbo was privately of the opinion that those dwarves who had decided they didn’t care to take on a dragon seemed really much more sensible than the ones he was misfortunate enough to have in his guest room, nonetheless, something in the way Dwalin told his tale ignited a sort of swelling feeling in his chest, and he rather foolishly wished he had been there to see Thorin present Fili on the day he was born, a tiny child with a grand destiny. He still, however, didn’t quite understand how all of this had led to the children being lost in the woods, and he was about to say so when Dwalin suddenly scowled ferociously, causing the words to die in Bilbo’s throat. But as he spoke on, it became quickly clear that it was not Bilbo who had caused the expression―in fact, perhaps Dwalin was barely aware of Bilbo at all.

“Fili, aye,” he said. “All knew that with Fili’s birth, our future was changed. But there were some who saw in him something else. An opportunity for their own advancement.” His fists clenched at his sides, his brow furrowed in a look of such black fury that Bilbo felt rather worried that the part of the room he was staring at would catch fire. “Here was a dwarf of Durin’s line, a dwarf all would acknowledge as fit to rule the folk of Erebor. And yet, here was a young dwarf, a dwarf so young he might perhaps be easily controlled. None could hope to sway Thorin’s path if he did not choose it, but a child―aye, a child could be taught. A child would be the puppet of whatever person had him in his power. And so they plotted to take the lad, and make him their own, so that they could rule the people themselves, though they were not of fitting stock.”

Bilbo sat up, staring at Dwalin. “Excuse me?” he said, having not at all anticipated this twist of the tale. “They kidnapped Fili so that they could rule the kingdom through him?”

“Aye―or so we think,” Dwalin said. “The roots of this plot are long and twisted, Mr Baggins. It has taken us months to unravel even the little that we know. It has been years in the making, and the creatures that planned it―aye, creatures, for I do not wish to call them dwarves, let alone kin―were patient indeed, waiting for the moment to strike. Thorin is beloved―but he is not without enemies. But it is those dwarves that care not to leave their comfortable lives that are the most dangerous. They do not hate Thorin―they may profess to love him, even―but if he were to die an untimely death and the new king were to proclaim that Erebor was a lost dream, well, they might not care to enquire too deeply into how it all came to pass.”

Bilbo suddenly found his throat very dry. He thought of the children, frightened of everyone, including their own kind. Of how they had been kidnapped, though Bilbo still had not heard by whom, and of the dwarf who had come and proclaimed himself to be Mr Bofur. And he looked at Thorin, where he lay shivering in the bed. “Then these dwarves,” he said, hoping that he had misunderstood. “These dwarves―they kidnapped Fili in order to―force him to do what they wanted?”

Dwalin nodded slowly. “I’ve still to hear it from the lads,” he said. “But I think it is so. We went to meet them, but they didn’t come. We searched―high and low, for days. Some said maybe they’d simply taken a wrong turn, fallen in the dark, been attacked by wolves.” He shook his head. “I knew. We knew. We knew someone had taken them. We’ve been searching ever since.”

Bilbo swallowed. “But for it all to work―Thorin would have to be dead,” he said, feeling a little faint.

Dwalin raised an eyebrow. “How do you think he came by his wound?” he asked.

Bilbo felt rather like he needed to sit down. Unfortunately, he already was sitting down, and so he closed his eyes and clutched at the arms of his chair for a moment. The dwarf who had come to Bag End―the one who had said he was Mr Bofur―why, he was associated with these villains! These dwarves who had stolen Fili and Kili away, and tried to kill Thorin. And he had been in Bilbo’s hobbit hole! Bilbo had led him there himself! Why, it just didn’t bear thinking about.

But another question now suggested itself to his mind―one that he had wondered about several times since Thorin had appeared on his doorstep, but never yet found the opportunity to ask.

“But how did you find them, then, master dwarf?” he asked. “You say you were looking for them everywhere―how did you come to think they might be with me, of all people?”

Dwalin looked rather surprised at the question. “We did not come looking for you, Mr Baggins,” he said. “We were following the dwarf who came to see you.”

“The dwarf?” Bilbo asked. “Mr Bofur?”

Dwalin frowned at him, and Bilbo shook his head. “He said he was Mr Bofur,” he said. “I know he was not, of course.”

“Aye, that one,” Dwalin said, face grim. “We’ve been following them for weeks, now, hoping one of them might lead us to the lads. We’d given up hope by the time he came all this way south―we thought there was no chance at all that they were hiding the lads here, amongst the halflings.”

“Hobbits, if you please,” Bilbo said, and Dwalin looked a little surprised, but nodded.

“Hobbits, aye,” he said. “But after he talked to you―we thought you were an ally of his, or an acquaintance, anyway. Perhaps you might know something.”

“So you decided to break into my hobbit hole,” Bilbo said, understanding at last.

“Never guessed we’d find the lads had been looked after all this time,” Dwalin said.

“I could hardly leave them out in the cold,” Bilbo replied.

For a long moment, Dwalin simply stared at him in silence. Then he inclined his head, as though acknowledging what Bilbo had said, and turned to look at Thorin. He leaned over, laying a hand on Thorin’s forehead, then grumbled something under his breath.

“Where’s that healer?” he asked.

Bilbo leaned over, too, touching the palm of his hand to Thorin’s brow. That dwarf king’s skin was far hotter than it should have been, and Bilbo began to become really quite concerned. He wondered, suddenly, what might happen if Thorin were to die, here in Bag End. What would happen to the little dwarves then? And what if the kidnappers were to return?

“I’ll fetch some water,” Dwalin said abruptly, startling Bilbo out of his thoughts. “You’ll look after him.”

“Yes―yes, of course I will,” Bilbo said. What exactly he was supposed to do to look after Thorin, he was not entirely sure, but since every dwarf in the hobbit hole had now asked him to do so, he felt he could hardly refuse. He watched as Dwalin left the room, then turned back to stare at Thorin.

“Oh, dear,” he said. “This is all rather a mess, isn’t it?”

Thorin didn’t answer―and no wonder, for he was sound asleep―and Bilbo sighed. “I don’t mind telling you that you and your kin are really very disruptive,” he said. “Not to mention lacking in manners, table and otherwise. I wonder what it is like, where you all live? Quite a cacophony, I don’t doubt!”

Thorin shifted, then, mumbling something and shuddering violently. His hair was dark with sweat, sticking to his forehead, and he frowned as if in pain.

“...no, you didn’t,” he said, the words slurred. “I won’t fail―I can’t―they’ll pay, they’ll pay.”

“Thorin,” Bilbo said, reaching over and shaking him by the shoulder, for his sleep sounded anything but restful and Bilbo did not care to watch him have a nightmare. “Wake up, now.”

Thorin let out a deep groan, then opened his eyes, seizing Bilbo’s hand where it lay on his shoulder. Unfortunately for Bilbo, it was the hand that was already feeling rather bruised, and he squeaked to find it once again the subject of what seemed to him to be an unnecessarily violent pressure.

Thorin, though, seemed to have little care for the discomfort he was causing the little hobbit. He frowned up at him, as if he could not quite remember who he was.

“The lads,” he said, shuddering. “I’ve failed.”

“No, no you haven’t,” Bilbo said. “The children are quite all right, I assure you.”

Thorin was shivering in earnest now, but still he kept his eyes fixed on Bilbo. “Have you seen them?” he asked.

“Yes, I certainly have,” Bilbo said. “Why, they are only in the kitchen.”

Thorin blinked once, then sat up abruptly, getting to his feet before Bilbo had a chance to try and stop him. “Kitchen,” he murmured, turning and looking around him, before putting a hand over his eyes. “My head--”

“Yes, yes,” Bilbo said, reaching up and putting a hand on each of Thorin’s shoulders in attempt to push him back down onto the bed. “You are not well at all, master dwarf. Please sit down.”

Instead of following Bilbo’s instructions, though, Thorin laid his own hands on Bilbo’s shoulders and then, to Bilbo’s astonishment, leaned down and pressed his forehead to Bilbo’s. His breath was hot on Bilbo’s face, and, as if Bilbo wasn’t already surprised enough, he found himself quite flabbergasted a moment later when a tear dropped from Thorin’s closed eye and landed on Bilbo’s cheek.

“I have lost them,” Thorin mumbled. “I’m so sorry.”

“Oh, no,” Bilbo said, not at all sure how to behave in this most unexpected situation. “No, indeed, you have not. Now, then, master dwarf, you must sit down. You are not well, and you must sit down.”

Thorin lifted his head, then. “There’s no time for that,” he said, and then suddenly staggered heavily. He was still holding on to Bilbo’s shoulders, and his grip tightened as if to try and right himself. But of course, Bilbo was not a wall, or a tree, or even a sturdy armchair, but a little hobbit who, though rather stout after the manner of hobbits, still weighed a great deal less than Thorin, and was taken by surprise, to boot. And so Thorin’s attempt to retain his footing instead led to both of them tumbling to the ground in a confused tangle, and to Bilbo striking his head rather solidly against the floor―yet another injury to add to those he had already sustained in his attempts to assist his guest.

“Well, really,” Bilbo muttered, quite unable to help himself, for he was beginning to reach the end of his tether as far as guests were concerned. But when he tried to rise and dust himself off, he found he could not―Thorin’s weight was lying across his legs―and a substantial weight it was, too―and Thorin himself seemed disinclined to get to his feet. Indeed, he appeared to have passed out.

“Hmph,” Bilbo said. Perhaps he should have said something more sympathetic, but at that moment he felt nothing but exasperation, and, since Thorin was not awake to hear it, it probably did no harm. In any case, he was stuck, and continued to be so for a full half a minute―which felt very long indeed―before the door opened and Dwalin appeared, filling the doorway and glowering at the two of them on the floor.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“Your friend is behaving very strangely,” Bilbo said, and then remembered rather belatedly that the friend in question was a king, even if currently a dispossessed one, and held back any other sharp words he might have said. “Could you help me?”

Dwalin did not speak, but only stepped forward, stooping and getting his shoulder under Thorin’s arm. With a great grunt, he stood, hauling Thorin with him and relieving Bilbo of the weight on his legs. Bilbo hurried to get to his feet before anything else untoward should happen, then did his best to help Dwalin drag Thorin back to the bed, which creaked alarmingly as the dwarf king was laid rather unceremoniously down. There followed a general rearrangement of limbs and bedclothes, until at last Thorin was mostly covered and seemed reasonably comfortable, if still unconscious. Bilbo and Dwalin stood, then, the former somewhat out of breath and the latter glowering as he stared at his friend.

“What were you doing?” he said at last, catching Bilbo by surprise.

“Doing?” Bilbo asked. “What do you mean?”

“Why was he out of bed?” Dwalin asked, looking up at him and frowning.

“Oh! Well, as to that, I’m not sure he quite knew what was happening,” Bilbo said. “He was dreaming, I think.”

“Dreaming about what?” Dwalin asked.

Bilbo sighed. “About the children, as near as I can tell,” he said. “He seemed to have forgotten that you had found them safe and sound.”

Dwalin’s frown only deepened at this, and he leaned over and laid his hand on Thorin’s forehead.

“Delirious,” he muttered.

“He does seem to have got worse rather fast,” Bilbo said, beginning to feel worried again now that he was on his feet and his exasperation had mostly worn off (though his head was still throbbing now and then).

Dwalin did not reply to this, staring at Thorin and frowning. “I need Oin,” he muttered. Then he seemed to shake himself. “I need to get a message to someone,” he said.

“Do you?” Bilbo asked. “Well, we can ask any hobbit to carry one for us―depending on where it is you need to send it, of course, and―well, what with the snow it might take a little while, so--”

“In secret,” Dwalin said.

“Ah. Well, I must say I have not been the most successful at secret messages recently. No experience, you see.”

Dwalin stared at him for a long moment, during which Bilbo began to feel quite nervous, then turned abruptly back to Thorin.

“They’re safe,” he said in a low voice. “And I’ll make sure they stay that way. Understood?”

It seemed to Bilbo that Thorin―being unconscious―was unlikely to understand anything, but Dwalin did not seem downhearted by his lack of response. He only leaned closer, murmuring something in the dwarf-tongue and gripping Thorin’s hand. Then, suddenly, he turned on his heel and strode from the room. Bilbo stared after him in some surprise.

“Well, your friend is quite rude,” he said to Thorin. “Although I am beginning to think that that is normal amongst dwarves.”

Thorin did not answer, of course.

****

Bilbo sat by Thorin’s side for some time after that. He did not wake again, but shivered and mumbled in his sleep, his brow creased, though whether in pain or worry Bilbo did not know. Lily returned and tended to him for a while, then left for her own home, though promising to be back to examine him before the day was out. Dwalin did not come back, and Bilbo found himself rather lulled by the quiet of the sick room. His head still throbbed a little, and he certainly was not entirely pleased with how events had progressed since the two adult dwarves had arrived at Bag End. But all the same, remembering Thorin’s tears at the thought of losing his two nephews―well, it would be a hard-hearted hobbit indeed that felt no sympathy, and Bilbo might have been a little short-tempered at times, but hard-hearted he was not.

At last, he fell into a doze of sorts. The next thing he was aware of was someone tugging insistently on his sleeve, and when he shook himself awake, it took a moment for him to remember where he was.

“Mr Bilbo,” someone whispered loudly, and Bilbo turned to see Kili standing at his side, looking mournfully up at him.

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said. “What is it? Has something happened?”

“I’m bored,” Kili said, as though it was the greatest of catastrophes.

Bilbo blinked at him, then took a moment to gather himself. Outside, the sky was still light, though the clouds were low and threatening. Inside, Thorin slept restlessly, face bright with sweat. And then: the child.

“I’m bored,” Kili said again. “Mr Bilbo, I’m bored.”

“Well, why don’t you go and play with your brother?” Bilbo asked.

At that, Kili’s face became a picture of tragedy. “He’s gone out,” he said. “He left me on my own.”

Bilbo frowned. “Gone out?” he said. “What do you mean?”

“He’s gone out,” Kili repeated. “I’m bored.”

“You can’t possibly mean that he’s gone out,” Bilbo said. “Outside? It’s snowing!”

Kili nodded vigorously. “He said I couldn’t go because it’s cold,” he whispered. “But I’m not cold! I’m not cold, Mr Bilbo, and I like snow. And I wanted to go and play but they wouldn’t let me.” His face fell. “So they went without me and now I’m all bored.”

Bilbo got to his feet, now, beginning to feel rather agitated. “They?” he said. “Mr Dwalin has gone, too?”

“Yes,” Kili said. “He went and Fili went, and I didn’t go.”

Well! Bilbo had thought, after the conversation they had had about Kili’s illness, that he was safe from any attempts to spirit the children away―but why would Dwalin take Fili without Kili? And leave without his friend and king? Surely Kili must be mistaken. Bilbo leapt to his feet, seizing the little dwarf’s hand and leading him out into the hall.

“Fili?” he called. “Dwalin?”

“They went out,” Kili said, pulling at his hand and looking at him as though he were rather stupid. “They went out and I’m bored and I said it already.”

“Out where?” Bilbo asked, glancing at the window, where it was snowing lightly again.

“Outside,” Kili said, and pointed. And it was then that Bilbo saw that, indeed, Kili was correct: Fili and Dwalin were just outside, a short distance from the front door. Dwalin was standing, and Fili was kneeling in the snow a short distance away and staring up into the sky.

Bilbo stopped short, heart thundering in his chest. “Oh,” he said. “They’re outside.”

“I said it already,” Kili said. “They went outside.”

Bilbo frowned. “But what are they doing out there?” he asked.

“They’re playing,” Kili said. “They’re playing without me. Mr Bilbo, feel my forehead.”

Bilbo blinked at him, then reached out to lay a hand on his brow, feeling a twinge of worry. He felt warm, but not overly so, and Bilbo stood back.

“Are you feeling ill?” he asked.

Kili shook his head. “Am I cold?” he asked.

“No,” Bilbo said. “You seem quite warm. Do you feel cold?” He turned back to the window, peering through at Fili and Dwalin.

“No,” Kili said. “I’m not cold. So I can go outside, can’t I?”

“Hm?” Bilbo asked, not really listening any more.

“Yes, I can,” Kili said. “You said I could.” And he let go of Bilbo’s hand. Bilbo did not much notice, trying to see through the fog of misted glass produced by his own breath. But when he heard a loud clatter in the hall he turned to see that Kili had knocked over the coat stand, and now stood, wearing his boots and a cloak that was certainly too big for him, with one hand on the door handle.

“Kili!” Bilbo said, the scene outside entirely forgotten as he rushed to interpose himself between Kili and the door. Kili stumbled back, eyes wide with alarm, and then fell over the hem of his too-long cloak and scuttled backwards, half-crouching, eyes fixed on Bilbo.

“Oh!” Bilbo said, suddenly exasperated all over again. “Well, I did not mean to scare you. But what were you doing? You know you can’t go outside.”

Kili stared at him in silence for a long moment, and then his face crumpled, tears glimmering in his eyes.

“Fili left me on my own,” he whispered. “He left me on my own.”

And as soon as it had come, Bilbo’s frustration evaporated, leaving only sympathy and a little guilt in its wake.

“Oh, there, now,” he said, cautiously approaching, and finding to his relief that Kili did not try to run away. “There, now. He is only outside, and I’m sure he is doing something very important.” He stooped and swept Kili up into his arms. “He would never leave you, surely you must know that?”

“He went and he said I couldn’t go,” Kili hiccupped, close enough to Bilbo’s ear to tickle it with his snuffling breath. “I want to go and play, too, I don’t want him to go without me. He went without me, Mr Bilbo.”

“No, he didn’t,” Bilbo said. “He hasn’t gone anywhere. Come, we’ll go and watch him and I’m sure he’ll be glad to know you’re there.”

He went to the window, Kili cradled against his side, and peered out. Fili, still on his knees, was now staring at something in the middle distance.

“What are they doing?” Bilbo murmured to himself.

“They’re playing with the birds,” Kili said, still sounding rather tearful. “They won’t let me play.”

“What birds?” Bilbo asked, but then he spied something black in the snow, in more or less the direction Fili was looking. It hopped a little closer, and Bilbo saw it was a large crow―or perhaps a raven, though these last were not common in the Shire. “What’s that?”

“It’s a birdy,” Kili said. “Hello, birdy.”

And just for a moment, Bilbo thought that the bird turned and looked straight at them, as though it knew they were watching through the window.

“How very odd,” he muttered.

“Can I go outside, Mr Bilbo?” Kili asked.

“No, you may not,” Bilbo said, rather absent-mindedly―though he tightened his grip on the child a little for fear he would try to go again anyway. But his mind was on the strange bird that seemed to be looking now at Fili and Dwalin, its head cocked on one side. Was it Bilbo’s imagination, or was there something of intelligence in its gaze?

“But I want to play with the birdy,” Kili said, beginning to whine now. “I like birdies!”

And at that, the bird turned to look at the window again, and something about it made the hairs rise on the back of Bilbo’s neck. Then, suddenly, it took flight, winging its way through the bare branches of the trees and off into the sky. In the snow-covered garden, Fili sat back on his heels, looking disappointed.

“It’s gone,” Kili said, sounding as though he felt much the same as his brother.

Bilbo shook himself, feeling rather as though he had woken from a dream. “Well, there are plenty more birds where that came from,” he said. “Nicer ones, too. Now, come, let’s see if your uncle needs any help.”

He turned his back deliberately on the window, and if he felt a little twinge of nervousness to do so, well, that was only his overactive imagination. Too many books and not enough sense, that was what his father always used to say.

And no doubt he was right.

Chapter Text

Thorin did not require any assistance, for which Bilbo would normally have been grateful—after all, his attempts to render such up until now had merely left him with an impressive collection of bumps and bruises, a throbbing head, and a hand that he was still not quite convinced was entirely unbroken. But on this occasion, he might have welcomed some distraction, not so much for himself as for the small dwarf in his arms. Alas, Thorin could offer none, being as he was still asleep, though shivering and mumbling now and again.

“What’s he saying?” Kili asked.

“Oh, he’s dreaming,” Bilbo said. “It’s just nonsense from his dreams.”

And he hurried them both out of the room before Thorin began saying something that might scare the child. Once they were in the hall, though, Kili craned his neck to see back into the room.

“Is Uncle Thorin going to die?” he asked.

“Certainly not,” Bilbo said, and hoped fervently that he was correct. “Your uncle is merely under the weather. Quite normal for dwarves, in my experience!”

“What weather?” Kili asked, and then, without waiting for an answer, wrapped his arms round Bilbo’s neck. “If Uncle Thorin dies, can we come and live with you?”

Bilbo sighed. “Your uncle is not going to die,” he said. “And I’m sure Mr Dwalin would look after you if you were ever to be separated from him again for whatever reason.”

“No,” Kili said. “I heard them saying if Uncle Thorin dies we won’t be able to go home. If we can’t go home, we can live here, can’t we? Me and Fili and Mama and then Uncle Thorin once he’s finished being dead.”

Bilbo found himself rather flustered by this, and not sure in which direction to reassure Kili first. He tried to peel Kili away from him so he could look him in the face, but the child only clung harder and seemed once again on the verge of tears. “It’s nice here,” he whispered in Bilbo’s ear. “I don’t want to not have anywhere to live, because it’s cold and Fili gets all angry.”

Well, poor Bilbo could hardly refuse such an entreaty, and he hugged Kili back. “You are very welcome to stay here,” he said. “I’m sure you won’t need to, but you will always be welcome in my home, for as long as you should need to stay. There—is that better?”

He felt Kili nod, but the child showed no inclination to leave off his clinging, and so Bilbo sighed and began to walk towards the kitchen in search of something else to distract him.

“Let’s see if we can find some cake, shall we?” he asked.

****

Cake there was indeed, and it even worked as a distraction for a little while, but once Kili had eaten as much as Bilbo could allow, and obediently washed his hands and face, he started to look fretful once again.

“Why hasn’t Fili come back?” he asked. “He doesn’t like me any more.”

“Don’t be so ridiculous,” Bilbo said. “Of course your brother likes you. Indeed, I have never seen two brothers so close.”

“He wouldn’t play with me,” Kili said, sounding rather sullen now.

“Because it is so cold!” Bilbo said. “I have no idea why you must insist on such foolishness when the answer is right before you!”

Kili’s face darkened. “You don’t like me, either,” he said.

Bilbo threw up his hands. “I certainly do not like you when you are being so stubborn and childish,” he said.

At that, Kili’s face crumpled for the second time in so many hours. “You don’t like me,” he whispered, and then threw himself from his chair and ran off into the living room before Bilbo even had a chance to respond.

Bilbo, for his part, felt rather flummoxed. He had been in the middle of drying the dishes, and he stood with a tea towel in one hand and a plate in the other, and stared after Kili.

“Sometimes I simply do not understand that child,” he muttered. Then he suddenly remembered Kili trying to go outside earlier, and he threw towel and plate alike into the sink and ran after him, wondering how far the stubborn little creature would be able to get before he was felled either by the cold or by his brother, who was, after all, right outside the front door.

But Kili had not gone outside—or at least, there was no sign of anything amiss when Bilbo peered out of the window into the gathering gloom. Fili and Dwalin were still out there, carrying out their strange little ritual, though beyond the heavy clouds the sun must surely be on the verge of setting. Kili, meanwhile, was nowhere to be seen.

“Kili?” Bilbo called. “Kili?”

But no answer came.

Well, no matter. If Kili had not gone outside, then he must be somewhere in the hobbit hole. And while that still left a large number of potential hiding places—for Bag End was old and rather maze-like and even Bilbo was not quite sure he knew all its nooks and crannies—it nonetheless was a far less daunting task than searching the whole of the outdoors for one small sickly dwarf. And in fact, though Bilbo was prepared for a long search, it did not take him long to find Kili at all: the first door he opened was the door to the room where Thorin lay, and there, curled up on the bed with his head resting on his uncle’s chest, was Kili. He was weeping silently, but before Bilbo could go to comfort him, Thorin shifted in his fevered sleep and half opened his eyes.

“Kili, lad,” he murmured, and put out an arm, wrapping it around his nephew’s shaking shoulders. “What ails you?”

Kili made no answer, but only burrowed further into his uncle’s embrace, hiding his face and hiccupping almost soundlessly.

“Well, we’ll see it made right,” Thorin said, and then seemed to drift off again. But Bilbo thought that perhaps it would be all right to leave Kili and Thorin alone. After all, Kili seemed to be drawing some comfort from his uncle’s presence that Bilbo could not provide and Bilbo rather thought—well, he rather thought the same might be true for Thorin, for he seemed altogether less restless in his sleep than he had on previous occasions when Bilbo had observed him. And so Bilbo stepped back into the hall and quietly closed the door.

****

It was not long after that that Fili and Dwalin came inside, Fili looking anxious, Dwalin disgruntled. And about time, too, for it was nigh on dark outside, and cold to boot, and Bilbo shook his head to see how red Fili’s nose and cheeks were.

“Go and sit by the fire,” he said, shooing the child in the direction of the hearth. “I’ll make you some tea.”

Fili, though, paused in the living room doorway, peering in, then looked back at Bilbo.

“Where’s Kili?” he asked.

“With your uncle,” Bilbo said. “Go on, now.”

Fili stood a moment longer, but then it seemed he decided Bilbo’s answer was acceptable, and he went into the living room. Dwalin moved to follow, but Bilbo stood in his way.

“And I suppose you have some good reason for having kept him out in the cold so long?” he said.

Dwalin stared down at him silently, eyes glimmering in a way that probably should have frightened Bilbo, but actually only annoyed him even more. “Yes?” Bilbo said. “I have not heard an answer?”

“The lad’s strong enough,” Dwalin said. “He doesn’t need to fear the cold.”

“I’m sure Kili was strong enough right up until he was stricken with lung-fever from being out in the cold too long,” Bilbo said. “I suppose you are not eager to see that happen to Fili as well?”

Dwalin’s face darkened, and now Bilbo did feel a minor twinge of anxiety. “Oh, look,” he said. “I am not trying to make you angry. I just—do not understand you dwarves! What on Earth could have been so important to keep Fili out so long in such weather? Why are you not more careful with your children?”

Bilbo barely had time to recognise the flash of fury in Dwalin’s eyes before he suddenly found his feet leaving the ground. Dwalin, holding the front of Bilbo’s coat in one great hand, was suddenly much closer. Closer, and really rather angry.

“You think I would allow any harm to come to them?” he growled.

“No, of course—of course!” Bilbo squeaked. “I certainly didn’t mean—well—I wonder if you would mind putting me down?”

Dwalin glared at him for long enough that Bilbo began to worry that his coat would tear before he could regain his feet, but then abruptly set him down.

“You think we do not care for our children as much as you for yours?” he said.

Bilbo shook his head quickly, but then, after considering, more slowly.

“No, I do not,” he said. “No, I have seen you with them—both of you. It is obvious how much you love them. But then—but what was so important that you had to keep Fili out for so long? I know you think I am just worrying over nothing, but I really do think it was too cold out there for a child.”

“Mr. Bilbo,” Fili’s voice said then, and Bilbo turned to see him standing in the living room doorway, looking rather anxious. He looked from Bilbo to Dwalin. “Are you all right?”

“Hm? Oh, yes, quite all right,” Bilbo said, dusting himself off a little. “Mr Dwalin and I were just having a discussion about something.”

Fili did not look very convinced by this—Bilbo supposed the tone of their conversation, if not the content, had been audible from the living room—but before he could say anything else, Dwalin frowned at him.

“Is that your teeth chattering, laddie?” he asked.

Fili shook his head quickly, but Dwalin was already striding forward, reaching out a hand to shepherd Fili back into the living room. “Mr Bilbo’s right,” he said, casting a quick glance in Bilbo’s direction. “You need to sit by the fire and warm up.”

“And I must make that tea,” Bilbo said, and hurried off to the kitchen, where he busied himself with boiling water and setting out cups, all of which was comfortingly familiar in the midst of the rather chaotic succession of events that now seemed to characterise his life. So absorbed was he, indeed, that it wasn’t until he looked up and saw Dwalin standing in the corner of the kitchen that he realised he was not alone. The sight of the great, glowering dwarf caused his heart to lurch in his chest, such that he almost dropped the cup he was holding.

“Oh dear,” he said faintly, once he had at least partly regained his composure. “You gave me a fright.”

Dwalin eyed him, unsmiling. “We’re stuck, you and I,” he said.

“Stuck?” Bilbo said.

“Aye,” replied Dwalin. “You’re stuck with us here when you don’t want us, and we’re stuck here when we don’t want to be here.”

“Oh—well, I certainly wouldn’t say I don’t want you—” Bilbo said, though not in the strongest of tones, but Dwalin waved a hand at him.

“No point lying about it to save my feelings, laddie,” he said. “ I’m not the easiest of guests, my brother’s told me that often enough. And Thorin—well, no-one ever clamours to have a sick dwarf in their home.”

“Well—well, I am glad you stayed instead of going out in the cold with him the way he is, anyway,” Bilbo said. “And the children, of course—I am glad they’re still here.”

“Are you?” Dwalin asked, raising his eyebrows. “Taken a liking to them, have you?”

“No, of course not,” Bilbo said, without thinking about it, then shook his head when he realised how it sounded. “What I mean to say is—I have been living alone for a long time, you see. I am not used to having anyone in my home, let alone children. Oh no, I am not used to children at all.”

Dwalin nodded. “We’ll take them off your hands as soon as may be,” he said.

“Oh—thank you,” Bilbo said, though he felt a peculiar pain in his heart, which he supposed was probably indigestion. “But in any case, they are not much trouble. No trouble at all, really.”

“That I cannot believe,” Dwalin said. “Those two are terrors if ever any were born.”

“Oh, no, they’re really quite well-behaved,” Bilbo said. “Well—Kili can be something of a handful, but Fili is always quick to prevent him from causing any serious damage. And really, it is only because he is so young and does not understand.”

Dwalin’s face only grew more sombre at this pronouncement, but Bilbo could not understand why he should be so gloomy at the news that his young charges were on the whole not such terrible guests as he imagined. But no matter—the tea was brewed, and Bilbo hastened to take a cup through to the living room, where Fili was sitting so close to the fire that it was a wonder he didn’t singe his eyebrows.

“Here, now,” Bilbo said, pressing the cup into his hands. “And I hope you will remember this next time you are tempted to spend the whole afternoon in the snow.”

Fili wrapped both of his hands around his cup and sipped at it, looking overall rather miserable. “Is Kili coming for tea?” he asked.

“I’ll go and see if he wants any,” Bilbo said. He made his way to Thorin’s room, thinking to get young Fili a blanket while he was about it. But when he opened the door, he was surprised to find Thorin awake and watchful, though still looking quite unwell.

“Oh,” Bilbo said, and then lowered his voice when he saw that Kili had apparently cried himself to sleep, still curled against Thorin’s side. “Hello. Are you feeling better?”

Thorin made some attempt to raise his free hand towards his face, but then grimaced and lowered it again. His other was wrapped around Kili, and he seemed disinclined to remove it. “Is there water?” he asked, his voice rough.

“Tea,” Bilbo said, putting down the cup he had brought for Kili. “It’s hot.”

Thorin nodded, considered a moment, then took his arm from around Kili and picked up the cup. Kili immediately whispered something inaudible and squirmed even closer to his uncle, though it seemed he did not wake, and when Thorin had drunk his fill, he returned his arm to its prior position, which seemed to suit both himself and his nephew much better.

“You’ve been hurt,” Thorin said.

Bilbo frowned, and doing so reminded him that yes, indeed, his face was still really quite sore. But now, here was a dilemma—should he inform his guest the truth of whence his bruises proceeded, or would it be more polite to dissemble? These were certainly never questions he had been forced to consider before he found himself the accidental host to several unruly dwarves!

“Yes, I—walked into a door,” Bilbo said at last. Thorin frowned at him, and Bilbo made every attempt to look innocent—which, indeed, he was.

“You should take more care,” Thorin said, shivering slightly. He was sweating, Bilbo saw, and the fingers of the hand on his bad side twitched every now and then, as if with a will of their own.

“Hm, yes, I certainly should,” Bilbo said. He was beginning to feel rather flustered, and he could only attribute it to the unblinking gaze to which Thorin had subjected him from the moment he entered the room. “And you, how are you?”

Thorin glanced down at Kili. “I dreamed we lost the lads,” he murmured. “Or—that we did not find them.”

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said. “But you did, and so all’s well that ends well, as my mother used to say.”

“Nothing has ended yet,” Thorin said. “And little ends well for the people of Erebor, so it seems.”

“Oh, well,” Bilbo said, starting to feel a little frustrated, “I suppose if you are determined to be gloomy about it.”

Thorin raised his eyebrows, and Bilbo suddenly felt rather as though perhaps he shouldn’t be talking to Thorin at all. A king, he reminded himself. A king, and here he was, being short with him!

At that moment, there was a heavy tread in the hall, and then Dwalin appeared in the doorway. “You’re awake,” he said to Thorin, and then glanced at Bilbo and said something in the dwarven tongue.

“All right, I know when I’m not wanted,” Bilbo said, and made his way back to the living room. “Your brother’s asleep,” he said to Fili before the young dwarf could ask his question. “And—oh, bother, I have forgotten your blanket.”

And he went to fetch it, and felt unaccountably irritated for the rest of the evening.

****

It was a quiet evening, all in all. Thorin and Dwalin had some kind of argument, though in low voices and in the dwarven tongue, so that Bilbo could not have discovered what it was about even if he had cared to. As it was, he was quite pleased to stay out of it, and simply to make sure all his guests had food and drink and were warm and as well as could be expected. Kili woke up towards dinner time, but was generally quiet and seemed rather miserable, even once reattached to his brother. Said brother, of course, was reserved in general, but seemed even more so that evening. And so they made a gloomy party, and as soon as he could politely do so, Bilbo excused himself and went to bed.

When he woke in the morning, the first thing he did was call on Thorin, for he was hoping that the signs of recovery he had witnessed the afternoon before might mean that he was better, on the whole. But alas, it was not so: Thorin seemed to have taken a turn for the worse in the night, and he lay senseless in the bed, shivering and mumbling to himself, while Dwalin glowered in the corner like a malevolent spirit.

“Oh dear,” Bilbo muttered, wondering if perhaps Lily’s doses could be doubled, or whether that would only make matters worse.

“Aye,” Dwalin snapped, and then stormed out of the room, brushing past Bilbo on the way. Bilbo, now getting somewhat used to his guests’ moodiness, worried over Thorin a little more, and then decided to go and see if Lily was on her way, for she had promised to visit that morning. What he found when he went out into the hall, though, had him stopping short in his tracks. For there was Dwalin, kneeling on the floor, helping Kili into his warm coat, while Fili pulled his boots on behind them. Which surely could only mean one thing.

“Excuse me, Mr Dwalin,” Bilbo said, hoping he was wrong. “What are you doing?”

Dwalin glanced up at him. “Taking the lads out,” he said.

Bilbo found himself briefly speechless. And then very much not so.

“I beg your pardon?” he said. “I thought I heard you say you were going to take Kili outside, but surely I must have been mistaken?”

Dwalin scowled at him, then turned back to Kili. “Put your gloves on,” he said.

Kili, jubilant at the thought of going outside, bounced over to Bilbo and beamed at him.

“We’re going to play in the snow!” he said. “Are you coming, Mr Bilbo?”

“No, I certainly am not,” Bilbo said, seizing Kili’s hand. “And you are not, either, young master dwarf. The very thought of it, in this cold weather!”

Kili’s expression became suddenly anxious, and he glanced between Dwalin and Bilbo. “But Mr Dwalin said I could,” he whispered. “He said, he said, didn’t he say, Fili?”

Fili, though, only stood with Kili’s gloves in his hand, looking worried.

“Mr Dwalin has apparently taken leave of his senses,” Bilbo said. At that, the Mr Dwalin in question rose suddenly to his feet and stepped forward until he stood only a foot away from Bilbo, towering over him.

“Kili,” Dwalin said. “Come with me.”

Bilbo stepped slightly in front of Kili, tightening his grip on his hand. “No, Kili,” he said. “Stay here with me.”

There was a moment of tense silence. Bilbo did not look at Kili, worried at what might happen if he took his eyes off Dwalin, but he heard him make a small, snuffling noise, as if he was on the verge of tears.

“Mr Dwalin said I could go,” he whispered. “Fili, Mr Bilbo’s all scary.”

Fili came sidling round Dwalin at that, and a moment later was standing by Kili. “Sh,” he murmured. “It’s all right.”

Bilbo, meanwhile, was starting to ache rather from holding himself so tensely. But he could hardly stop when there was every possibility that Dwalin might snatch one or both children and abscond with them before Bilbo had a chance to react. Indeed, Dwalin might even knock him down in order to get to the children—and if he chose to do so, well, there was very little that Bilbo could do about it. But nonetheless, he was resolved to try.

But Dwalin made no move towards him, only stood and glowered. Bilbo glowered back—and was rather surprised at himself, for hobbits were not generally given to glowering—but at last could stand the painful silence no longer.

“Mr Dwalin,” he said, making a valiant effort to keep his tone even, “I know you care for Kili’s welfare as much as I do myself. So if you will just please explain what you are about, then perhaps we can resolve this. Surely you are not simply taking them out to play in the snow?”

Dwalin said nothing. But Kili tugged at Bilbo’s hand.

“He wants me to talk to the birdies,” he whispered.

“Hush, Kili,” Fili said sharply, and even went so far as to put his hand over his brother’s mouth. And indeed, if he had not done so, Bilbo would, of course, have dismissed Kili’s statement as mere childish fancy—but as it was, it became immediately clear that there was something of importance in it.

“I beg your pardon?” Bilbo asked, and then, given that Kili was currently being prevented from speaking, turned to Dwalin. “What does he mean?”

It seemed as though Dwalin would not answer him, for he only stood silent and clenched his jaw as if to prevent a single word from spilling out. But then, suddenly, he sighed.

“I need to get a message to someone,” he said. “A healer, for Thorin.”

“I know,” Bilbo said. “We’ve talked about that already.”

“Talked, aye,” Dwalin said. “But we didn’t find a way to do it.”

“I suppose not,” Bilbo said. “But what does that have to do with Kili?”

“I need his help,” said Dwalin. “For the message.”

Bilbo was beginning to get a crick in his neck from looking up at Dwalin for too long, and he found it was not helping his mood at all. “Help?” he said. “How do you expect him to do that? Are you going to send him out in the snow to carry the message for you himself?”

“Don’t be angry, Mr Bilbo,” Fili said then, and Bilbo looked down to see him looking quite anxious, still pressing his hand firmly over his brother’s mouth, while Kili’s eyes were almost bulging with all the things he no doubt wanted to say.

“I’m not angry,” Bilbo said—but of course, he was, and with good reason, he thought. He took a deep breath. “Well, this is one of your confounded dwarvish secrets, of course, and I would normally humour you, or at least try to, but in this case I cannot. Do you understand me, Mr Dwalin? I cannot simply stand by and watch you take that child out into the cold. I will not!”

Dwalin opened his mouth, but at that moment, there was a knock at the door. Neither Bilbo nor Dwalin moved to open it, but the knock came again, more insistent.

“Bilbo Baggins,” came Lily’s voice through the door. “Are you there?”

Kili tugged at Bilbo’s sleeve, then, and managed to escape his brother’s control long enough to whisper, “Mr Bilbo, Mistress Lily’s at the door. Can’t you hear her?”

Bilbo took a deep breath, then took Kili’s hand, turning his back on Dwalin with some trepidation. “Of course I can,” he said. “Come, then, let us answer it.” He resolved quietly not to let go of the child’s hand until he was sure there was no risk of him being snatched away—even if that meant holding onto it until spring.

“Can I go outside?” Kili whispered.

Bilbo sighed and reached for the door.

“No,” he said. “You may not.”

****

Lily went in to see Thorin, and left Bilbo and Dwalin standing in the hall with the children. They did not speak, although Bilbo kept up a desultory sort of conversation with Kili, who seemed not really to have noticed the tense atmosphere. The same could not be said for Fili, who stood holding his brother’s other hand and looking worried. Bilbo wished he could reassure him, but could not think how, for he knew that this issue of Dwalin wanting to take Kili outside was not solved, and he was not at all sure what he was going to do about it once Lily had gone.

But when Lily at last came out of Thorin’s room, she had a look of great concern on her face, and all Bilbo’s worries about Dwalin and Kili fled from his mind.

“Lily?” he asked. “What’s the matter?”

Lily looked at him, and then at the two little dwarves. “Fili, take your brother to the living room,” she said.

“But—” Fili started.

“No buts, child,” Lily said. “Do as I say.”

Fili looked up at Dwalin, who nodded silently. This seemed to be what the young dwarf needed, for he began to lead Kili away, though not with great enthusiasm. Bilbo, having only lately sworn to himself he would not relinquish his grip on Kili’s hand until matters had changed, now found that they had, somewhat at least, and had to be satisfied with positioning himself between Dwalin and the living room door, an act he did his best to perform with some subtlety, but which nonetheless caused Dwalin to raise an eyebrow. He did not speak, though—at least, not to Bilbo. Instead, he turned to Lily.

“Say what you’ve got to say,” he said.

Lily drew a careful breath. “Your friend is not getting better,” she said.

“Aye,” Dwalin replied. “I see that. You’ll try another potion, then, will you?”

Lily’s mouth set into a grim line. “I have no more potions to try, master dwarf,” she said. “His wound is grievous. I have done all I know how to do.”

Bilbo stared at her in some consternation. “Surely you cannot mean—but he will get better, of course?” he said. “He will not die?”

“If he were a hobbit, I should say he would certainly die,” Lily said. “Indeed, I am sure he would have died already, for the sickness was deep-set before ever I laid eyes upon him. But dwarves—well. Do not mistake me, master dwarf, I know what I am about. I have healed many a hobbit from any illness you care to imagine, from birth all the way through to great old age. I have even seen some wounds almost as great as the one suffered by your friend, though from different causes. But dwarves—I do not know enough about dwarves. I do not know.”

Bilbo felt a great fear in his heart, then, both for the dwarf king who he still barely knew, and for the children who loved him so deeply, and even for the friend who stood by him in all weathers. He could hardly believe that a creature of such great strength could fail and die, but when he looked at Dwalin’s face, he saw that Dwalin believed it only too well. Perhaps Lily, too, was unnerved by the stony glint in the dwarf’s eyes, for she squared her shoulders and raised her chin.

“Master dwarf,” she said, “I would have you know that I have done everything and I will do everything in my power. I do not stint, be my patient hobbit, dwarf, or any other creature. I shall not stint while there is still breath in my body.”

Dwalin scowled at her, but then nodded. “Aye,” he said. “I know it.”

There passed, then, an odd moment, during which Dwalin and Lily stared at each other, and Bilbo felt almost as though they were conversing, though they were not. What they were saying to each other, he did not know, but at last Lily nodded firmly, and Dwalin inclined his head a little towards her, as if in acknowledgement. Then he cleared his throat.

“I need a word with Mr Baggins,” he said. “Would you see after the wee lads?”

“I will,” Lily said, and made her way to the living room without further ado, leaving Bilbo and Dwalin alone in the hall. Bilbo began to feel quite nervous, though he was glad that at least Kili was not present and therefore could not be snatched away. All the same, the absence of anyone to defend made him suddenly much more aware of his own rather diminutive size in comparison with the great, glowering bulk of the dwarf who faced him now.

“Mr Baggins,” said Dwalin, and Bilbo couldn’t help noticing the formality of his mode of address, “Thorin needs a healer.”

“He has the best healer in Hobbiton,” Bilbo said. “In the whole Shire, indeed.”

“Aye, I do not doubt her skills,” Dwalin said. “But he needs a dwarven healer.”

“But where are we to find such a person?” Bilbo asked. “Perhaps we can send to Bree? But I think it will be difficult, with the snow.”

Dwalin shook his head. “I need to send a message,” he said. “I need your help.”

“Of course—of course,” Bilbo said. “How can I help?”

Dwalin was silent a moment, as if considering where to begin. Then he drew in a breath.

“There are those amongst Durin’s folk who have a gift,” he said. “Not many, and it shines brightest in those of Durin’s line. Thorin has it, and Fili. But Thorin is insensible, and Fili is inexperienced. It takes practice, this gift, and he is still so young.”

Bilbo frowned, wondering where this was going. “What kind of gift?” he asked.

“To speak to the ravens, and have them understand,” Dwalin said.

Bilbo blinked, wondering if Dwalin was using some figure of speech that he did not understand. “Ravens?” he said. “What ravens?”

“The ravens of Erebor,” Dwalin said. “Though some have strayed further west in these last years. And one came yesterday when I called, but Fili could not understand him.”

“I... beg your pardon?” Bilbo said. “I’m sorry, it sounds as though you are suggesting—talking birds? But surely I must be mistaken.”

“Not any birds,” Dwalin said. “Ravens. And aye, they talk, for those with ears to hear.”

There was a moment of silence, then, for Bilbo was gaping at Dwalin with no thoughts that he could find a way to put into words. Dwalin stared back at him, and then, eventually, raised an eyebrow.

“Are you all right, laddie?” he asked. “What’s wrong with your mouth?”

Bilbo closed his mouth with a snap, and then shook his head. “You really—you truly believe Fili can talk to ravens?” he asked.

“No, I know that he can’t,” Dwalin said. “You’ve not listened to a word I’ve said, now, have you?”

“Er—” Bilbo said, beginning to feel rather as though he had walked into the pages of one of his books. But, he remembered, these were dwarves, dwarves who were hundreds of years old and had faced a real live dragon. Why should there not be talking ravens, after all?

“Fili hasn’t had enough practice,” Dwalin said. “But Kili—that wee lad’s always had a way with animals. My brother thinks the gift burns brighter in him than it has in any dwarf for many a long year. So I need your help.”

At last, Bilbo understood what it was that Dwalin was asking for, and he stood up straight. “You mean you want to take Kili outside?” he said. “To—talk to the ravens?”

“I mean to do that, aye,” Dwalin said. “We’ll see whether he has the gift or no. But I’ll keep him warm—you’ve no reason to fear.”

Bilbo shook his head. “It is not simply a matter of keeping him warm, master dwarf,” he said. “I’ve told you and told you again. If you take him out there, he may die.”

“Aye, and if we cannot get a healer here, Thorin will die,” Dwalin snapped, and Bilbo saw for the first time the great strain of his friend’s illness in his face. Dwalin closed his eyes a moment, pressing his fingertips to the bridge of his nose, then sighed. “I’ll not let anything happen to him,” he said. “I swear it. But I will not go to my grave knowing I could have saved my king and I did not even try.” He shook his head. “I’m not asking for your permission, understand me, laddie? But I’ve no wish to cause you grief, and all this would be easier with your help.”

Bilbo opened his mouth to argue, but something about the way that Dwalin stood made him pause to consider. The slump of his shoulders, the tired look about his face that Bilbo had not noticed before—he seemed suddenly diminished, no longer the shadowy spirit who seemed somehow invulnerable. And Bilbo thought of Thorin as he had last seen him, shivering and mumbling in a bed that was too small for him, and wondered what he would do, if it were his own friend lying there. If it were one of the children.

“Well,” he said, and then, again, “Well. I suppose—well, I suppose we can ask Lily. Perhaps there is some way we can do it that will ensure Kili’s safety. There is no harm in asking, after all.”

Dwalin passed a hand over his face, and it seemed that some part of the heavy gloom that hung about him lightened, just a little. He laid his hand on Bilbo’s shoulder and nodded.

“I’m grateful, Mr Baggins,” he said. “You need never doubt that. And he’ll be grateful, too, when he wakes up.”

“Oh, well,” Bilbo said, feeling rather flustered all of a sudden—why must dwarves make such a song and dance about every little thing? “You’re very welcome, of course.”

“Then let’s go find the lad,” Dwalin said.

And so they did.

Chapter Text

In the end, it was Dwalin who spoke to Lily, for Bilbo felt concerned that the children should not stay alone, but that they should not have the conversation in front of them—not when so much of it hinged on the fear that Thorin might soon die. Since Bilbo himself did not feel quite equal to the task of explaining talking ravens, he left this up to Dwalin, and settled himself in front of the fire in the living room, only to be immediately accosted by Kili.

“Can I go outside, Mr Bilbo?” he asked. “Mr Dwalin said I could go outside.”

“Sh, Kili,” Fili said, and he sounded rather frayed around the edges, as though it was not the first nor even the tenth time he had said the same thing that day. “You’ll get too cold.”

“No-ooo Mr Dwalin said, though,” Kili said. “He said, you heard him say! I’m not cold and you went outside yesterday and I couldn’t go and that’s not fair.”

“Stop being stupid—” Fili started, and Bilbo, sensing an argument brewing, decided to take matters into his own hands.

“Now, then, you two,” he said, cutting across whatever it was that Fili was planning to say. “No shouting. Kili, I do not yet know whether Lily will allow you outside or not, but if you are to go, it will be for a few minutes only, and you will certainly not go unless you start behaving more politely, do you understand?”

Kili managed to look delighted and chastened both at the same time, and he stood up straight and almost glowed with excitement. “Can I talk to the birdies?” he asked.

“Let’s hope so,” Bilbo said, rather to himself than to Kili. Then he turned to Fili.

“Now, young Master Fili, you are right to be concerned about your brother’s welfare, and if he does go outside, I will need your help to make sure he stays warm. Can you help me?”

Fili nodded immediately, though he looked quite miserable—and Bilbo could hardly blame him, for the memory of Kili’s breath wheezing and grating in his chest on the day he had almost died in Bilbo’s arms kept intruding into his mind. Unfortunately, this was interleaved with memories of Thorin weeping in his delirium, and groaning from the pain of his wound, and so Bilbo was beset with an entire cacophony of ill dwarves, invisible to all but him, but no less upsetting (and rather annoying) for it.

“We will just have to make sure that he stays warm,” he muttered to himself.

Kili clapped his hands in glee, and tugged on Fili’s sleeve, gesticulating furiously. It took Bilbo a moment to recognise that he was using the dwarven sign language, so exaggerated were his movements, and it seemed that Fili did not recognise it at first, either, for he frowned, and then shook his head.

“Talk quieter,” he said, perhaps more sharply than was warranted. “You’re always shouting, I can’t see what you’re saying.”

Kili did not have the opportunity to repeat his signs, however, for at that moment the kitchen door opened and Lily appeared, looking most put-out.

“Come here, child,” she said. “Find a chair to stand on.”

Kili did has he was told, and stood quietly while Lily poked and prodded him, listened to his chest, and then stood back and sighed in a most irritated fashion.

“Well, I can’t say I hold with this business about talking to birds,” she said, directing her remark to Bilbo rather than Dwalin, who stood behind her like a large dark cloud. “Filling the children’s heads with stuff and nonsense may be the way dwarves behave, but it will certainly not do for hobbits, Bilbo Baggins!”

Bilbo, who was still quite uncertain about the idea that ravens could talk himself, nonetheless felt the need to defend Dwalin—if only to prevent an altercation. “Well—they are dwarves, after all, my dear Lily,” he said, in as conciliatory a tone as he could muster at short notice.

“Hmph,” Lily said. “And so you approve of this, do you?”

“Not—approve, exactly,” Bilbo said, feeling rather trapped between a rock and a hard place. “But—er—it can do no harm, surely?”

Lily scowled at him, and Bilbo hastily added, “Provided Kili is not too unwell, of course.”

And Lily, despite her reluctance, seemed unable to bring herself to lie about the state of her patient, for she sighed heavily. “He is to be well wrapped up—very well indeed!” she said. “And to be brought inside at the first sign of breathing problems. And if you can, you must have him inside your coat, so that the air is warm before he breathes it.” She shook her head. “Such foolery is quite unnecessary, mind. Talking birds, indeed!”

At this short speech, Kili leapt off his chair and went running over to Fili. “She said I can go!” he crowed, in an odd sort of whispering shout. “Fili, Fili, I can go outside and talk to the birdy!”

“I know, I heard,” Fili said. “Don’t run, you’ll get into trouble with Mr Bilbo.”

Kili immediately turned and fixed Bilbo with a wide-eyed stare. Bilbo, meanwhile, had no plans at all to reprimand him for running—indeed, he had long since given up the notion that he could stop either child from doing so whenever they chose—and he was rather surprised that Fili would say such a thing.

“Well, let’s get you wrapped up,” he said instead. “Where is your cloak?”

****

The preparations for taking Kili outside were long and rather tedious, made more difficult both by Dwalin and Lily’s continual helpful suggestions and by Kili’s tendency to take off whatever clothes were put on him as soon as Bilbo’s back was turned. At last, Bilbo—who had been feeling rather on edge for some little while—threw the blanket he was holding down on the ground and folded his arms.

“Master Dwarf,” he said, very sharply indeed, “if you do not stop playing the fool you will certainly not be going outside!”

Kili started violently at this, and stumbled a pace or two back, before tripping over the hem of his cloak and sitting down with a thump that sounded rather painful. He scrambled backwards on his behind a little further, eyes wide, and Bilbo immediately felt—well, not sorry, exactly, for truly the child had been behaving in a most trying manner, but rather guilty, and at the same time exasperated that it was impossible to even reprimand him properly without frightening him. He drew a deep breath, attempting to find some way to soothe the fear without softening the sentiment, but Fili, who had been standing by looking rather sullen throughout the proceedings, came quickly forward and knelt by his brother.

Well, Bilbo was sure that now he would be in for a tongue-lashing, as on every other occasion when Fili had been witness to someone frightening his brother. But instead of turning on Bilbo, Fili simply took Kili’s arm and pulled him to his feet.

“You’re being stupid,” he said. “You’ll get cold outside, so you’ve got to wear all the clothes.”

“Fili,” Kili whispered, lower lip trembling a little, but whatever he was about to say, Fili spoke over him.

“Don’t be stupid,” he said firmly, then dusted Kili down—perhaps with a little more force than necessary—and turned to Bilbo. “He’s only being stupid because he’s little,” he said. “He’s always like that.”

Kili looked stricken by this pronouncement, and Bilbo, determined to avoid tears if possible, hurriedly picked up the blanket he had dropped and came forward.

“Well, it isn’t very kind to call your brother stupid,” he said to Fili, and then turned his attention to Kili. “And now, I’m sorry for scaring you, but you must wrap up warm or you can’t go outside. Is that plain enough, young Master Kili?”

Kili swallowed and nodded, eyes bright, but although one tear trickled down his cheek, no others followed, and he allowed Bilbo to wrap him up in all manner of warm things without further complaint. Unfortunately, once he was entirely swathed, it was discovered that he could no longer walk very easily, or even move very much at all, and so Bilbo found himself carrying the child out into the snow, wearing every blanket that Bilbo had been able to find in Bag End’s capacious cupboards, and tucked inside Bilbo’s cloak, to boot. The poor creature looked rather overheated, but the moment they stepped over the threshold, his face brightened, and he waved his arms as much as he could manage.

“It’s all snowy!” he whispered.

“Indeed,” Bilbo said, feeling rather less pleased by this than his dwarven companion. “Brr.”

“I’m not cold,” Kili said immediately, but Bilbo remembered Lily’s injunction to warm the air before Kili was to breathe it, and wondered how on earth he could do such a thing. He rearranged his cloak a little so that it was covering Kili’s mouth, and hoped that would be sufficient.

“What about this raven, then?” he asked, looking over his shoulder at Dwalin, who stood some paces back. “Will you come and call it?”

Dwalin shook his head silently and pointed towards the stand of leafless trees that stood at the end of Bagshot Row. Bilbo turned to look at them, and saw, to his surprise, that a large, black bird was perched in one of them. Although it was too far away to see where it was looking, nonetheless Bilbo felt a sudden prickling feeling on the back of his neck, as if he were being watched.

“Well, I never,” he muttered to himself. “Have you been there all night?”

The thought of Bag End having been under surveillance by such a creature since the day before caused a shiver to run down his spine, but he was distracted from his thoughts by Kili, who squirmed in his arms and managed to knock the cloak away from his mouth.

“Is that the birdy?” he asked. “Is it coming over here?”

“I don’t know,” Bilbo said, looking around at Dwalin. He had stopped some distance away, and Fili was standing beside him, wearing an odd expression that Bilbo could not quite decipher. “Maybe Mr Dwalin will ask it to come over here?”

At that moment, Kili twisted himself suddenly in Bilbo’s arms, so that Bilbo lost his grip on him and he tumbled to the ground. He was on his feet in a moment, though, and stumbled forward two paces before falling flat on his face, feet tangled in the many blankets he was wearing.

“Oh, bother,” Bilbo muttered, and leapt forward, helping the child to his feet and holding him steady. “ What are you doing? You’ll get cold.”

“I want to see the birdy,” Kili said, bouncing on his feet in his excitement. He had half-melted snow smeared across one cheek, and Bilbo hastily dusted him down then attempted to wrap him in his own cloak again. He glanced around to see that Dwalin still hadn’t come any closer, though Fili had take two steps forward and had stopped wearing that strange expression, now looking simply anxious—an expression with which Bilbo was a great deal more familiar. Lily stood with them, now, and they made a strange little gathering, dark against the snow.

“Aren’t you coming?” Bilbo asked.

Fili took another step forward, but Dwalin reached out and took him by the shoulder, pulling him back and causing a shadow of that strange look to come over his face again.

“They don’t like crowds,” Dwalin said. “You’ll be all right. You’re small enough.”

“Hmph,” said Bilbo, not quite sure whether he felt offended or not. But he had no time to consider, for Kili was plucking at his sleeve.

“Mr Bilbo, is the birdy coming here?” he whispered.

Bilbo turned to him and considered. He could pick him up again, but he supposed it would be quite awkward for him to try and talk to the raven when he was so much higher than it—unless the raven wanted to perch on Bilbo’s arm, but—no, no, that would not do at all! But if he let Kili stand on his own, he would get cold much more easily, and besides, be quite liable to try and run around, which would no doubt lead to him falling in the snow again. It was a difficult problem, and one to which, in the end, Bilbo could only think of one solution.

Dwarves,” he muttered, and then, with a great sigh, lowered himself to sit upon the snowy ground, and drew Kili onto his lap, wrapping his cloak around him and trying to ignore the seeping feeling of freezing damp that began very quickly to make itself known in the area of his posterior. “I will never invite any strange children into my house again,” he said, through gritted teeth, and so quietly that he was sure Kili could not have heard him.

“What strange children?” Kili asked, and then, not waiting for Bilbo to answer, “Can I make a snowman?”

“No, you may not,” Bilbo said. He glared at the raven in the tree, which showed no sign at all of coming over to them. “ Well, you can hardly talk to the birdy when it’s all the way over there,” he said, rather to himself.

Kili shook his head. “Why doesn’t it come over here?” he asked. “Come over here, Mr Birdy!”

The bird croaked, and then, without further ado, it launched itself from the tree, flapping over towards them.

“Well, I never,” Bilbo murmured to himself. But his surprise was quickly replaced by alarm, for as the raven drew nearer, it became clear that it was really quite large—almost as large as Kili himself. Bilbo was familiar with crows, of course, and with rooks and jackdaws, but although he had read tales of ravens, he had never seen one before, and had not realised quite what a difference there was.

“Oh dear,” he said, pulling Kili closer to him. The raven had landed a few steps away and cocked its head, regarding them both with a beady eye. Kili, meanwhile, clapped his hands.

“Mr Birdy!” he said, and squirmed on Bilbo’s lap. “Mr Bilbo, can I go and stroke the birdy?”

“No, you certainly may not,” Bilbo said. The raven was looking at him, now, and Bilbo felt somehow that such a bird would never submit to being stroked by a small, silly dwarf—or by anyone else for that matter. “Are you going to talk to it?”

“Hello, Mr Birdy,” Kili said. “Do you like jam?”

Bilbo sighed heavily. “You’re supposed to be giving it the message,” he said. “Do you remember the message?” He felt faintly ridiculous—perhaps more than faintly, seated as he was on the damp, snowy ground, clutching a dwarf child and urging him to make conversation about something other than jam with a bird of all things—but he was keenly aware that the amount of time they had was limited indeed, and they certainly could not waste it.

“Mr Dwalin says I’ve got to tell you about my uncle,” Kili said. “My uncle’s not well, and Mr Dwalin says Mr Oin needs to come and look after him.”

The raven hopped forward, and then back, and croaked.

“He says he wants to build a snowman with me,” Kili said.

“Does he, indeed?” Bilbo asked, feeling obscurely disappointed, even though he had never truly believed that Kili could speak to ravens—of all the ridiculous ideas! “Well, you will have to tell him that you’re not allowed, since you have to stay as warm as possible.”

Kili made a rather disappointed noise, and Bilbo began to consider how he could get up off the ground and return to the hobbit hole, since it was clear that this whole business of talking birds was just foolish fancy.

The raven croaked again, fluttering back a little as Bilbo made to move. Kili squirmed again.

“No, he’s nice,” he said. “Don’t peck him, it’ll hurt.”

Bilbo paused, frowning first at Kili, then at the raven. The raven stared back, unblinking, and Bilbo felt suddenly as though he was being carefully assessed.

“Kili?” he asked.

As if in answer, the raven croaked at him, wearing what if Bilbo had not been a sensible hobbit he would have called a disapproving expression.

“She says not to flap about so much,” Kili said. “And she’s not a Mr Birdy.”

“Well, I am not—flapping —” Bilbo said, and then felt that the task of arguing with a bird was one to which he was not equal. “Kili, did you really understand it?”

“Mr Dwalin says we need Mr Oin to come here,” Kili said. “Because of uncle being not well. Do you know where Mr Oin is?”

The raven cocked its head on one side, its attention focussed on Kili now. It hopped about a bit, then croaked three times.

“Uncle’s name is Uncle Thorin,” Kili said. “He’s the biggest uncle that anyone’s got, and the bravest and strongest. We could go and see him, then you could see how big and strong he is.”

He tried once again to get out of Bilbo’s lap, and Bilbo tightened his arms around him.

“No, we could not,” he said, then turned to look at the raven. “I’m afraid his uncle is very ill, and I cannot invite you to come and see him, given his condition.”

He felt really quite mad, explaining himself to a raven, and perhaps even madder when it seemed to him that the raven inclined its head slightly in acknowledgment. Oh dear, Bilbo Baggins, you have been spending far too much time with dwarves and their peculiar notions!

“Can I build a snowman now?” Kili asked, but his words sounded slightly breathless, and Bilbo sat up straighter, listening carefully. When he heard the edge of a wheeze at the end of Kili’s indrawn breath, he immediately began to struggle to his feet, lifting a protesting Kili into his arms. The raven fluttered back several paces, and Bilbo bowed hastily to it—as much as he could manage, given the struggling burden he was carrying.

“I hope you understood the message,” he said. “We really do need Mr Oin.”

And at that, he turned and hurried back towards Bag End. Dwalin, Lily and Fili, having clearly recognised his urgency, caught up with him before he reached the front door, and Fili tugged at his sleeve, face pale and anxious.

“Is Kili all right?”

“I’m all right!” Kili said, waving from Bilbo’s arms. “Mr Bilbo won’t let me build a snowman!”

“Inside,” Dwalin growled, for the breathlessness of Kili’s words was plain for everyone to hear. And a moment later they all tumbled through the door of Bag End, Bilbo hurrying to the kitchen where a great cauldron of water was beginning to boil, and the others following him as fast as may be. In no time at all there was a bowl of steaming water on the kitchen table, fragrant with Lily’s potion, and Kili, still protesting, was placed before it, his head covered in a tea towel. There followed perhaps a minute or two of anxious silence, before the sound of Kili’s breath started to ease a little. Bilbo sighed, sitting down heavily on the bench beside the child, and in doing so becoming suddenly aware once again of his damp hindquarters.

“Well, I hope we will not be doing that again in a hurry,” he said.

“Did he understand the message?” Dwalin asked. He was standing beside Kili with one enormous hand on his shoulder, though whether he was keeping the child from sitting up or reassuring himself Bilbo was not sure.

“Kili?” Bilbo asked. “I don’t see why he wouldn’t have.”

“No,” Dwalin said. “The raven.”

“It was a Mistress Birdy,” came Kili’s voice from under the tea-towel, and Bilbo smiled a little.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Certainly Kili claimed that they were talking, but I have no way to know if it was true or not. But he certainly gave the message, several times.”

Dwalin scowled at this, but he did not speak again. Bilbo, meanwhile, noticed that Fili was standing in the corner of the kitchen, looking rather ghost-like and not, as Bilbo would have expected, firmly attached to his brother’s side.

“Hm,” he said, getting to his feet and going over to the child. “And what about you, Master Fili? You look very cold. Let me make you some tea.”

He pottered around making the tea, and in the meantime, Kili recovered enough that Lily pronounced him out of danger. She glared at Dwalin, and at Bilbo too, and made some comments about endangering children’s lives in the pursuit of ridiculous notions, and Bilbo was really rather glad when she left, although he felt a little guilty about it. After that, Fili and Kili were sent to sit in front of the fire in the living room, Dwalin announced he was going out to make sure that there were no threats or dangerous creatures abroad, and Bilbo was left to blessed peace and quiet in the kitchen.

Of course, it didn’t last long. Bilbo had had, by his estimate, only a quarter of an hour to himself when he heard the sound of Fili shouting in the living room. He couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was one of anger, and Bilbo got to his feet in some consternation. Before he reached the door through to the living room, though, he heard another door slam, and when he entered the room, Kili was there on his own, curled up in a ball in front of the fire with a stricken look on his face and silent tears rolling down his cheeks.

“Kili, my boy!” Bilbo cried, hurrying over. “Why, what is the matter? Where is your brother?”

“Mr Bilbo,” Kili whimpered, holding out his arms. Bilbo got down on his knees—not without some difficulty—and hugged the poor child, who clung to him and wept until Bilbo’s shirtfront was soaked through.

“Sh, sh, there,” Bilbo said, stroking his hair. “But, now, Master Kili, where is your brother? Did you have an argument?”

Kili hiccupped and sobbed, and it seemed that he said something but whatever it was was so lost in the various other noises he was making that Bilbo could not make it out at all. He sat back on his heels and gently pried Kili away from him, holding him at arm’s length and peering into his face.

“What happened?” he asked again.

Kili’s face was splotchy with tears, his eyes red and sore-looking. “He shouted at me,” he whispered, and then burst into fresh tears. Indeed, he seemed quite inconsolable, and Bilbo hugged him again, but at the same time chewed at his lip, for as concerned as he was about Kili, he was also worried about his other little guest. It was not entirely unusual for Fili to shout at his brother, but he always felt sorry immediately afterwards, especially if it led to Kili’s tears (as it almost always did), and Bilbo had never seen him storm off and abandon Kili to his misery before. What was more, Fili had been out of sorts all day, and whatever it was he had shouted at Kili must have been quite serious for the child to be so upset.

“Sh, now, sh,” Bilbo said, rocking back and forth a little, but he couldn’t help but glance out of the window to make sure it was not snowing again. He hoped fervently that Fili was still in Bag End, but if he was not—well. At any rate, Bilbo needed to find out, as soon as may be.

“Why don’t we go and see your uncle?” he asked, and without further ado stood up and carried Kili through to Thorin’s room. Thorin lay in the grip of fever, his breathing heavy and laboured, and under better circumstances Bilbo would have preferred to keep Kili well away from him. But the circumstances were what they were, and Bilbo laid Kili down in the bed.

“There, now,” he said. “Your uncle will look after you for a little while.”

Kili whimpered and pressed himself close against Thorin’s side, and even in the depths of his illness, Thorin seemed to sense him there, for he moved his arm and grasped feebly at Kili’s shoulder.

“Well,” Bilbo said. “I will be back very soon, I promise.”

And he hastened out of the room. First he went to the little dwarves’ bedroom, but there was no sign of Fili there. Then he looked in all the other rooms at the front of the hobbit hole, and was about to make his way into the darker, mustier room deeper in the hillside when a movement caught his eye. He turned and stared out of the window. And there, halfway down the hill, he saw a small but unmistakeably stocky figure stamping his way through the snow.

“Oh, bother,” Bilbo muttered, and hurried into the hall, seizing his cloak from the peg, and then, seeing Fili’s cloak next to it, seizing that as well. He flung open the door and half-ran down the hill, forcing himself to slow down when he almost slipped on the snowy path. Fili was stalking along with his fists clenched by his side, moving remarkably quickly for such a small creature, and Bilbo was quite out of breath by the time he caught up with him.

“Master dwarf,” he panted, “where on earth do you think you’re going?”

“Leave me alone,” Fili said, refusing to look at Bilbo.

“Well, I’m afraid I can’t do that,” Bilbo said, hurrying to keep pace with him. “Why, your uncle would certainly be very angry if I simply allowed you to wander off on your own. And your brother would be most upset—even more than he already is.”

Fili’s mouth twitched unhappily at this, but he did not stop walking. “I don’t care,” he said. “I’m going and you can’t stop me.”

“Oh, now, my dear Fili,” Bilbo said, trying to get in front of the child, “won’t you tell me what this is about? Or at least put your cloak on? I would prefer not to have any more sickly dwarves in my hobbit hole.”

“I said leave me alone!” Fili said, and he pushed Bilbo aside and began to run. But he had not gone three steps when he tripped over some obstacle hidden in the snow and landed heavily on his hands and knees. He made no sound, but he did not sit up, either, only stayed where he was, on his hands and knees, staring at the ground.

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said. “Are you all right?”

Fili sat back on his heels, then, staring at the palms of his hands. They looked red and sore, and blood oozed from one, forming a startling scarlet patch on the snow.

“Ow,” Fili whimpered, and in that moment he seemed younger than he ever had to Bilbo. His eyes were huge and shocked, bright with tears, and Bilbo thought that they were not all for his injured hands, if indeed any of them were at all.

“Oh dear,” he said again, pulling out his pocket handkerchief and moistening it with melted snow. “Let me see.”

He took hold of Fili’s hand and—after a moment’s hesitation and a heavy internal sigh—knelt on the snow himself, peering at it closely then dabbing it with the handkerchief. Fili did not resist, but a tear rolled down his cheek, and Bilbo felt quite, quite sorry for him.

“Well,” he said, “I think you will probably live.” And he patted Fili’s knee and then, acting rather impulsively, drew him into his arms. He expected Fili to pull away, but instead he only shuddered a little, although he did not hug Bilbo back.

“Now, then,” Bilbo said, pulling back so that he could peer into Fili’s face. “What is the matter?” He took the opportunity to put Fili’s cloak around his shoulders, and Fili seemed barely to notice.

“Is Uncle Thorin going to die?” he asked, his voice barely louder than a whisper.

Bilbo opened his mouth to reassure the child, but then thought better of it—for Fili was not stupid, and he was too old—in experience if not in years—to be mollified with simple reassurances like his brother. Bilbo sighed and sat back on his heels.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I very much hope not. I’m sure the raven will bring your friend Mr Oin, and he will be able to help your uncle.”

Fili’s face darkened a little at that, and he clenched his fists and then hissed, remembering his injured hand.

“Well, what is the matter now?” Bilbo asked. “Don’t you like Mr Oin?”

“No, it’s just—” Fili said, and then got suddenly to his feet and turned away. Bilbo, rather concerned that he might start walking again, got up and laid a hand on his shoulder—half for reassurance, half to keep him where he was—but at his touch, Fili turned suddenly, eyes flashing.

“I’m supposed to be the one who can talk to the ravens,” he said. “I’m the older one! I’m going to be king one day, and I can’t even talk to the ravens! Why can Kili do it and I can’t?”

Bilbo blinked in surprise at this sudden vehemence. “Well—Mr Dwalin tells me it needs practice,” he said. “Kili is just unusual because he is so fond of animals, but I am quite sure you will be able to talk to the ravens once you’ve practiced a little more.”

“No, I won’t!” Fili said—or rather, shouted. “I can’t do anything! Kili got hurt because I wouldn’t be good, and then I got us lost and then he got sick! And I made him get even more sick! And now Uncle Thorin’s going to die and I can’t even help him at all! And if he dies I’ll be king and I’ll have to look after everyone, and I can’t even look after Kili even though I’m supposed to!”

Bilbo stared at him in astonishment, and Fili stared back, wearing a furious expression, his chest heaving. At last, Bilbo found himself kneeling down in the snow once again, so that he was eye to eye with Fili.

“Fili, my dear child,” he said, “none of that was your fault. You have done far, far more than anyone could expect from you. Why, you have defended your brother against grown men, dwarves and hobbits, not to mention hunger and thirst and cold. He would have died many weeks ago if it had not been for you, of that I am quite sure. You have been quite remarkably brave—quite remarkably so.”

Fili’s face twisted at this, and he let out a hiccupping sound that was half-angry, half-desolate. “I’m not brave,” he said. “I’m scared all the time. I’ll never be brave like Uncle Thorin.”

“That is not true at all,” Bilbo said. “Perhaps you are not yet as big and strong as your uncle, but you are already quite as brave and clever as him. In fact, I think you are the bravest dwarf I have ever met.”

Fili stared at him in silence for a moment or two, and then, quite without warning, he burst into tears. Bilbo—now rather used to this behaviour, though for the most part from Kili rather than Fili—wasted no time, but held out his arms again, and this time Fili came willingly, and sobbed into Bilbo’s chest, clutching at his cloak with shaking hands.

“There, now,” Bilbo murmured, stroking his hair, just as he had with Kili not very much earlier. “There, now, sh. You’re a very brave lad, and that’s the truth of it.”

Fili cried for a long time—long enough that Bilbo’s feet began to go numb—and Bilbo did his best to comfort him, hugging him tight and wrapping his own cloak around both of them to keep them warm. At last, the little dwarf’s sobs began to quieten, and when he was simply breathing heavily rather than weeping, Bilbo patted him on the back and said, “Well, I think we should go inside before either of us catches a cold. Besides, I think your brother will be missing you.”

He held Fili away from him, and Fili sniffled and wiped his nose on his sleeve.

“I shouted at him,” he said, looking very ashamed of himself. “He wouldn’t stop talking about the raven and I—I got really angry.”

“You certainly did,” Bilbo said. “But come, he will forgive you, of that I am sure. Perhaps it wasn’t a very kind thing to do, but we all do things we shouldn’t from time to time, especially when we have been through very trying times.”

Fili didn’t look very convinced by this, and Bilbo put an arm round his shoulders.

“Oh, now,” he said, “do you think your brother will stop loving you because you snapped at him? Would you stop loving him if he did the same to you?”

Fili shook his head vehemently at this, but he still seemed quite unhappy, and Bilbo sighed.

“Well, it won’t do for us to stay out here, that is quite certain,” he said. “After all, Mr Dwalin will probably happen by any moment, and want to know what we are about. So come along! We will go and find your brother, and you will see that I am right, and I am sure you will both be very happy to be reconciled.” And he decided that once Fili and Kili had mended their fences, he would be having a word with Mr Dwalin about just how much of a burden had apparently been resting on young Fili’s shoulders for far too long.

And he took Fili’s hand and began to lead him up the hill towards Bag End.

Chapter Text

The hobbit hole was quiet when Bilbo and Fili came in—Dwalin was still not in evidence and Bilbo presumed Kili was still with Thorin. Bilbo put a hand on Fili’s back and led him into the kitchen, where he settled him in front of the fire and examined his injured palm. It was still oozing a little blood, and Bilbo tutted and went to fetch a bowl of water and a bandage.

“Where’s Kili?” Fili asked.

“Hm? Oh, he is with your uncle,” Bilbo said.

Fili frowned a little at this, but did not speak, and Bilbo finished tending to his hand and went to make some tea. Once he had provided Fili with a cup and a large piece of cake, he patted him on the shoulder.

“I’ll go and see if your brother’s awake,” he said.

He was halfway through the living room when he discovered that Kili was, indeed, awake, for it was then that the little dwarf appeared in the hall doorway, looking red and splotchy from crying and wearing a quite desolate expression. When he saw Bilbo, he let out a silent sob and then fairly ran across the room to throw his arms around Bilbo’s leg.

“Mr Bilbo,” he whispered, hiccupping a little. “I thought you’d left me on my own.”

“Now, now,” Bilbo said, patting him on the head. “I left you with your uncle.” He tried to pry Kili away from his leg, but the child had a remarkable grip for such a small creature.

“He’s all asleep and ill,” Kili said. “I was all on my own, I was all on my own and no-one was there.”

He buried his face in Bilbo’s knee, weeping violently, though very quietly. Bilbo felt quite sorry for leaving him to work himself up into such a state, although at the same time he felt rather exasperated that such a small thing should upset him so much. But the desperate grip on his leg pushed him rather into sorrow than irritation, and he took hold of the child’s shoulders and managed somehow to loosen his grasp enough that he could lift him into his arms.

“There, now,” he said, dabbing at Kili’s face with his handkerchief. “I’m here now, and you are quite safe.”

Kili rubbed his eyes, looking the picture of misery. “Fili left me on my own,” he whispered.

And so there was the crux of it: it was not abandonment by Bilbo that had produced this great emotional crisis, after all.

“Well, he did,” Bilbo said, aware as he said it that the door to the kitchen was open and that Fili could no doubt hear what he was saying—though perhaps not Kili’s replies, since he still spoke largely in whispers, despite having long since abandoned the pretence of not talking. “And I am sure he is very sorry. But you know, he was quite upset himself, and I think he can probably be forgiven.”

Kili blinked at him. “Is Fili upset?” he asked. “Why is he upset?”

“Well,” Bilbo said, thinking about how he might explain it in a way Kili would understand, “well—how would you feel if there was something you felt you should be good at, but Fili was much better at it than you?”

Kili frowned and rubbed his nose. “Fili is better than me at everything,” he said.

“I’m sure that’s not true,” Bilbo said.

Kili, though, nodded vigorously, and even seemed rather cheered up at the prospect. “He’s really strong and he runs fast!” he said. “And he knows everything, more than anyone else, except Mama and Uncle Thorin.” He frowned in thought. “Well, Mr Balin knows more, but Mr Balin only knows boring things and Fili knows interesting things. And he can read! And he’s better than everyone else’s brothers.”

Bilbo found himself smiling, rather despite himself. “But don’t you think that’s just because you’re younger?” he asked. “I’m sure you’ll catch up one day.”

“No,” Kili said, shaking his head. “Fili’s better than everyone, even old people.” He gave a satisfied nod.

“What about talking to the raven?” Bilbo asked. “You were better than Fili at that.”

“No, I wasn’t,” Kili said. “Fili was better. He talked to the birdy all day yesterday and I only talked to her for a few minutes! And she was cross and she didn’t like me, but she liked Fili. He’s going to be king one day, and then all the birdies will come and bring him nuts and cake and he’ll let me have some.” He looked quite delighted at this prospect, and although it was certainly not helping Bilbo to explain why Fili had been upset, he could nonetheless hardly begrudge a flight of fancy that had taken Kili from disconsolate to cheerful in only a few moments.

“How do you know she liked Fili?” he asked instead, and Kili beamed.

“Everybody likes Fili!” he said. “And he’s my brother, so I like him the most!”

“Do you, indeed,” Bilbo said, laughing now. He turned towards the kitchen, hoping to take Kili to his brother—for he had no doubt it would lighten both their hearts—but he saw there was no need. Fili was standing in the kitchen doorway, looking on the verge of tears. But when he saw Kili, he smiled.

“Hello,” he said.

Kili tugged on Bilbo’s shirt. “It’s Fili,” he whispered. “Is he still cross with me?”

“Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Bilbo asked. But Fili took a few steps forward, so that he had to look up at Kili, and answered without needing to be asked.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have shouted.”

Kili looked at him for a moment, then squirmed a little.

“Can I get down, Mr Bilbo?” he asked.

Bilbo was quite happy to oblige, and he set Kili on his feet, then stood back and watched as Kili stood shyly a few paces away from Fili. He looked very much like he wished to be reconciled, but wasn’t sure how it would be received; and Fili, of course, looked the same way.

“Well,” Bilbo said, after waiting for long enough to decide that the whole thing was rather ridiculous, “I think Kili forgives you, don’t you, my boy?”

Kili glanced at him then nodded vigorously.

“And Fili doesn’t really think... whatever it was he said to you earlier,” Bilbo said.

Fili shook his head with almost as much enthusiasm as his brother had nodded.

“Well, that’s settled,” Bilbo said. “Now. Cake?”

He marched towards the kitchen, and when he looked back, he saw that Kili had followed behind him, which of course had brought him to Fili’s side. And Fili took the opportunity to reach out and seize his brother, hugging him tightly and pressing his forehead quickly to Kili’s, before stepping back and whispering something in his ear that made Kili giggle silently.

“Good,” Bilbo said to himself, for he had had quite enough of little dwarves being miserable for no good reason.

“Mr Bilbo, can I have honey on my cake?” Kili said from somewhere a few paces behind him, and Bilbo sighed.

****

Once Bilbo was sure that the two little dwarves were settled with their cake, and with each other, he went to see how Thorin was faring. Little seemed to have changed in the sick-room, and Bilbo, having tiptoed in, was about to tiptoe out again, when suddenly a hand grasped feebly at his own.

“Mr Baggins,” Thorin said, his voice hoarse and thin. “Stay.”

Bilbo, somewhat startled, turned back and sat down beside the bed. “Hello,” he said. “I didn’t know you were awake.”

“Am I awake?” Thorin asked. “It seems I cannot always tell these days.”

Bilbo felt rather at a loss for a response to this, so he patted Thorin’s hand and smiled as best he could, in a room with such a foreboding atmosphere. “Yes, you are,” he said. “And looking much better, I might add.”

“Do not lie to me, Mr Baggins,” Thorin said. “I am very far from better. I dream of the great door, and halls that lie beyond.”

“Do you?” Bilbo asked, not really understanding what door Thorin meant, but thinking that it all sounded rather gloomy. “Oh dear.”

“Fili is young, still,” Thorin murmured. “So young. Mr Baggins, I would have you be his tutor.”

“His—excuse me?” Bilbo asked. “I’m not sure—I understand?”

“Dwalin tells me you have a brave heart,” Thorin said. “And I have seen the goodness in you. To take them in—you have saved us all. And there are so few among us who—yes, yes. He will need those around him who love him only for him, and not for the crown he wears.”

Bilbo frowned, taking Thorin’s hand in his own and noticing the heat of his skin. He leaned a little closer, peering into Thorin’s face. “Are you quite all right?” he asked. “Would you like some water?”

“Water—yes, water,” Thorin murmured.

Bilbo found a cup by the bed, and then did his best to help Thorin sit up. It was a difficult business, and Thorin’s face twisted in pain more than once, which made Bilbo feel really quite guilty. But at last, he was in a position such that he could drink the water more or less without spilling it. Bilbo held the cup, but Thorin’s good hand came up to try and do it himself, and folded around Bilbo’s. The heat of it made Bilbo quite nervous, and he felt a swooping sensation in his stomach which he thought might be nausea.

“Perhaps—is there something else I can get you?” he asked. “Lily left some willow-bark, I will make you some tea to ease your pain.”

“I am quite able to bear the pain, Mr Baggins,” Thorin said. “But if you care to ease my mind, bring my nephews to see me.”

“Oh—of course,” Bilbo said, and disentangled his hand from Thorin’s. He went out into the hall, and found Fili and Kili nowhere in evidence in the living room. It took him only a moment or two to find them, though, for the sound of whispering and giggling led him to look behind one of the larger armchairs, and there they both were, constructing some kind of diminutive and shapeless structure out of sticks.

“There you are,” Bilbo said. “Your uncle would like to see you.”

Kili bounced to his feet immediately. “Uncle Thorin!” he whispered, and seized Fili by the hand. “Uncle Thorin, Fili, come on!”

Fili scrambled up, but he looked a great deal less enthusiastic than his brother, and he held Kili’s hand tightly and stopped him from charging ahead to Thorin’s room.

“He’s not well,” he reminded him. “He won’t want you running around making lots of noise.”

“I’m not making noise!” Kili whispered, but somehow, even though he was whispering, he managed to give the impression of being really rather noisy. Bilbo, meanwhile, became aware that once again Fili was taking responsibility for his brother—a responsibility that rightly should rest elsewhere.

“I’ll take Kili,” he said. “I’m sure you would like to see your uncle without having to worry about him.”

Fili, though, just frowned at him in confusion and perhaps a little wariness, and pulled Kili closer to him.

“No, I can look after him,” he said. “I’ll make sure he’s good.”

“I know you can look after him, but—oh, bother,” Bilbo said, for Fili did not seem to be listening, but had marched ahead—or rather, been dragged ahead by Kili—and both of them were now entering Thorin’s room. Bilbo hurried to catch up with them, and decided he would tackle the problem of Fili’s sense of responsibility a little later. There was only so much dwarven foolishness one could deal with at a time, after all.

By the time Bilbo got inside Thorin’s room, Kili was trying to climb up on the bed, while Fili was pulling him back.

“He’s ill, you’ve got to be careful,” he said in a low voice. Still, it was enough to alert Thorin to their presence, and he opened his eyes and turned his head towards them.

“Lads,” he said, and even though his voice was hoarse and pained, there was warmth there that made Bilbo’s heart feel rather soft all of a sudden. “Let me see you.”

Fili put an arm round Kili’s shoulders and led him up so they were standing close enough that Thorin could see them, even in the half-light of the sickroom.

“Hello, Uncle,” he said, sounding oddly apprehensive.

“Are you feeling better?” Kili asked.

Thorin smiled. “Much better for seeing you lads,” he said. He reached out with his good hand, laying it first on Kili’s head, then on Fili’s. “Is Mr Dwalin looking after you well enough?”

“Mr Bilbo looks after us!” Kili said. “He’s nice and he’s got lots of cake.”

“Mr Dwalin’s busy lots,” Fili added.

“I’m sure he is,” Thorin said, and he seemed to notice Bilbo in the room for the first time, and laid a searching glance upon him that made Bilbo feel uncommonly flustered. “Now, lads, you’ll be good for Mr Bilbo, understand?”

“I’m always good!” Kili said.

Thorin laughed at that, though he stopped quickly, a grimace crossing his face. “Aye, you’ve not a mischievous bone in your body,” he said, cupping Kili’s cheek with his hand. Then he turned to Fili, and his expression grew more serious. “Fili. You’re young to bear such a burden, I know. I am sorry to give it to you.”

Bilbo straightened up, as at last he began to understand what Thorin was saying—or rather, what he was not saying. Fili seemed to understand at least some of it, too, for his face became pale and set.

“Take advice wherever you can get it, my nephew,” Thorin said. “But be wary of what they may want who give it to you. Balin and Dwalin, you can trust. Oin and Gloin, too. If you are wise, you will always have one of them by your side.”

Fili swallowed hard. “Yes, Uncle Thorin,” he whispered.

Thorin nodded. “I have done my best to give you what you need,” he said. “I have not had as much time as I would have wished.” He held out his hand. “Kili.”

Kili stepped forward, and Thorin took his arm and pulled him up until he was able to press their foreheads together. It did not look quite comfortable for either of them, but Kili, for once, was quiet and seemed to understand the solemnity of the occasion, if not the cause of that solemnity. Thorin closed his eyes and murmured something to him in their own language, then turned to Fili and gestured for him to come forward. Here, too, he repeated the touching ritual of pressing his forehead to his nephew, his hand coming up to clasp Fili’s cheek. When Fili stepped back, Thorin fixed him with a sombre eye.

“Make sure you look after your brother,” he said.

“I will,” Fili said, sounding choked. “I’ve been looking after him, I’ll—I can do it, I promise.”

Thorin didn’t seem to notice the pleading note in Fili’s voice, but only settled back on his pillow with a sigh, eyes slipping closed as if he had used the last of his strength. “Sit with me a while, my nephews,” he murmured, and Fili immediately found a chair and managed to accommodate both Kili and himself within it. They sat in silence, even Kili quite subdued, and Thorin seemed to fall asleep almost immediately. Fili, though, sat wide awake and watchful, and Bilbo—who seemed to have been forgotten by all and sundry—stood by the door and wondered if he should leave, or whether it would be better to stay. He felt a great pain in his heart at the scene he had witnessed, but at the same time, he felt rather annoyed with Thorin. To frighten the children so with his gloomy hints and allusions, and above all to increase yet again the burden of responsibility on poor Fili’s shoulders, and all when he seemed less likely to die than he had for quite some time! Bilbo certainly couldn’t countenance that a dwarf who could make such dignified speeches could be very near death at all. And while the thought did much to cheer him up, it did not help his irritation. No wonder Fili was so miserable, when his uncle demanded so much of him!

Bilbo could not, of course, make his displeasure known, either by remonstrating with Thorin—now asleep, and still very ill to boot—or by trying to reassure Fili, who seemed, by his stiff posture and unnatural stillness, to be trying to project some form of nobility that perhaps was characterised by similarity to a statue. Still, he felt that he did not want to leave the children alone, although it was with their beloved uncle, for fear that said uncle might awaken and say even more noble-sounding but rather foolish things to them and that Bilbo might not be there to hear it and would have to spend hours dragging it out of one or other of them later.

Dwarves! It was all very well being regal and serious, but Bilbo rather preferred being happy and a little silly. And he rather thought Fili might, too, if he had ever been given the option—after all, not half an hour before he had been laughing in the living room with his brother (an extremely silly creature if ever there was one), and now he looked entirely miserable, if a little more dignified. And honestly, if dignity only ever came with misery, well, Bilbo thought it was entirely overrated.

These were the thoughts that ran through our Mr Baggins’ head as he stood and watched his little friends watching their uncle sleep. After a time, though, Kili grew restless, and tugged at Fili’s sleeve.

“Are we going to stay here for a long time?” he asked in a loud whisper. “Is Uncle Thorin going to wake up again?”

“Of course he’ll wake up again!” Fili said, looking horrified—but then he seemed to understand that Kili had not meant quite what he thought, and he hunched his shoulders. “Hush, anyway,” he said. “Uncle told us to stay here with him.”

“I don’t think he meant you had to stay there until he woke up,” Bilbo put in, and both dwarves started and turned, have apparently forgotten he was in the room.

Fili frowned. “He said to.”

“No, he did not,” Bilbo said. “Certainly it was very kind of both of you to keep him company while he was dropping off, but he is asleep now and there is no need for you to stay if you don’t want.” He smiled at Kili, who started to get down from the chair, only to be prevented by Fili.

“Mr Bilbo said we could go and play now,” Kili said.

Fili didn’t say anything, but he looked from Thorin to Bilbo, and it was clear he was unable to decide what to do. The longing glance he cast at the door suggested he truly did want to leave—and no wonder, for the atmosphere in the sick room was oppressive, even without the weighty sense of duty which Thorin had laid on his nephew’s shoulders. Bilbo hoped that Fili would decide in his favour—but in the end, that burdensome duty won out. The young dwarf put an arm round his brother’s shoulders and pulled him back into the chair.

“We’ll stay here,” he said. “That’s what Uncle Thorin wanted.”

Kili looked quite unhappy at this, but when he opened his mouth to speak, Fili said something quiet in their own language, and Kili subsided, huddling a little in the chair. Bilbo felt rather the same way, and, having concluded that trying to argue with Fili would most likely only make things worse, he slipped out into the hall.

The next little while was rather quiet. Dwalin came back with a face like thunder, and Bilbo decided to wait until he was in a better mood before broaching the subject of Fili. Instead, he went back into Thorin’s room with a favourite book of the children’s, and read to them quietly for a time—after all, even if for some reason Fili felt they had to be inactive, that didn’t mean they had to be bored. He paused in the story when he realised both dwarves had fallen asleep. It was only early afternoon, but the air in the sick room was rather stultifying, and Bilbo felt a little drowsy himself, so he was not entirely surprised. He closed the book and slipped out again, glad of the fresh air he found in the hall.

He was less glad when, some time later, he was startled half out of his skin by a sudden, ear-splitting wail from the bedroom. Briefly, he feared that Thorin might indeed have fulfilled his gloomy prognostications and died, but then he recognised Kili’s voice, and the tone from so many interrupted nights, and understood.

Dwalin charged through the living room even as Bilbo reached the hall, almost running into him outside Thorin’s door, face black with fury. He seized Bilbo’s hand as he laid it on the door handle.

“I’ll go first,” he said. “Whoever they are, they’ll not hurt those lads.”

“Oh, no—no,” Bilbo said, quickly taking his arm. “No, it is a nightmare. Kili is having a nightmare. Come, I’ll show you.”

And he opened the door, and slipped through, even as another shriek split the air. On the other side, he saw, even as he expected, Kili bundled up in his brother’s arms, eyes open and staring wildly at nothing, even as Fili tried to soothe him. But even as he stepped into the room, Kili howled again—there were words, Bilbo thought, but he could not make them out—and Thorin suddenly sat bolt upright in the bed and reached out, plucking Kili from his brother’s arms.

“What—” he growled, wrapping an arm around Kili and looking around as if for some threat. But there was nothing, of course—only Fili, whose face creased in worry as he got down from the chair.

“Uncle,” he said, even as Kili began to struggle furiously. “Uncle, give him to me. He’s dreaming, I can look after him. Give him to me.”

Thorin seemed not to hear him, but when Kili started crying out again, he held him tighter than ever and began to cast around, face furious. Bilbo started forward—though what he might be able to do he was not sure, and he was certainly not ready to receive another fist in the face from Thorin.

But in the event, it was not Bilbo who was on the receiving end of the violence of Thorin’s confusion. For Fili, beginning to look quite desperate as his brother wailed in terror, reached up to tug on Thorin’s arm, opening his mouth to try once more to talk some sense into him. And Thorin grasped Kili with his bad hand, and used his good one to deliver a back-handed swipe to Fili that knocked him off his feet.

“I’ll not let you—” he growled, voice thick as though he could not quite make his tongue do his bidding.

Fili landed in a tumble of limbs, his eyes wide and shocked as his hand went to the place on his cheek where Thorin had caught him. And now Bilbo did run forward, quite horrified—but once again, Dwalin was faster. He crossed the room in two strides, snatched Kili from his uncle’s grasp as easily as if he had not been grasped at all, and handed him to Bilbo without even looking. Thorin turned to face this new threat, surging forward, but Dwalin was quite equal to that—and more than equal. He caught Thorin by the shoulders and forced him back onto the bed, leaning over him, nose-to-nose.

“You touch that lad again and I’ll lay you out, ill or no,” he growled.

Bilbo did not wait to see what Thorin’s response to this was, for Kili was struggling in his arms and had begun the mantra that always marked the latter part of his nightmares. “They’ve got me,” he sobbed. “Fili, help! Fili, Fili, they’ve got me!” And so Bilbo stroked his hair, murmuring he knew not what, and half-ran to where Fili lay, his face deathly pale. Bilbo felt a great deal of guilt for asking him to take on yet more responsbility for his brother, after what had just happened. But when Fili turned towards him, he saw the mask of shock that he wore suddenly slip away, to be replaced by determination, and as he sat up and held his arms out for his brother, Bilbo wondered if maybe it wasn’t for the best that there was something so important to distract Fili at that moment.

“Fili, Fili!” Kili cried, and Bilbo gladly gave the child into his brother’s arms. And Fili folded himself around Kili, curling himself almost into a ball with Kili on the inside.

“Sh, it’s all right,” he whispered, hiding his face in Kili’s shoulder, and there was a break in his voice that caused some pain to Bilbo’s poor battered heart. “Sh, we’re all right, now. We’re all right, you’re all right.”

Bilbo sat back on his heels, sighing heavily, then reached out and put a hand on Fili’s head.

“There, there, my dear boy,” he said, for though it was a small gesture indeed, he wished to do something to help the poor child. Fili did not reply, but only seemed to curl more tightly around his brother, his face quite hidden away now. There was the sound of a sob, which might have come from Kili and then again might not have, and Bilbo felt quite helpless indeed.

Dwalin straightened up, then, wiping his hand across his brow, and Bilbo turned to see that Thorin was unconscious again. Dwalin, meanwhile, stood still for a moment, frowning down at Kili and Fili on the floor. Kili was quieter now, but still making soft sounds of misery, while Fili somehow seemed barely visible despite being on the outside of the little bundle they made. Dwalin glanced briefly at Bilbo, and then stooped and scooped the pair of them into his arms.

“Being in here’s not doing anyone any good,” he observed to no-one in particular, and then stalked out of the room.

Bilbo scrambled to his feet and made to follow, but he paused before he left, turning to look at Thorin. The great, majestic dwarf that Bilbo had met only a few days before seemed wasted and pale, now, his cheeks hollow under his beard. Bilbo, remembering his wild eyes, his unknowing violence against his own beloved nephew, felt a sudden, terrifying certainty that Thorin truly was not long for this world. And what would happen then? Bilbo dared not think. But he approached the bed and laid a hand carefully on Thorin’s forehead, and was quite alarmed indeed by the heat that he felt there. And how had he, Bilbo Baggins, a respectable hobbit of The Shire, come to have a furious dwarf king dying in his guest bedroom? It was all suddenly so strange to Bilbo that it almost made his head spin, and he sat down for a moment in the chair vacated by the two little dwarves. But sitting there reminded him of their plight, and so it was not long at all before he rose again—for it was all very well being rather overwhelmed when no-one is depending on you to do anything, but quite bad manners to be so when you are needed. And needed Bilbo was—and there was another thing that, when he thought about it, was quite strange—and so he did not sit, but stood, and left the king’s bedside, hoping that when he returned it would not be to find him already passed from this world.

Dwalin was in the living room, staring out of the window with a look of great discontentment. The little dwarves were in his arms, still curled around each other in a way that looked quite uncomfortable, and at least one of them still crying quietly. When Dwalin saw Bilbo, he gave him a curt nod.

“Is he still sleeping?” he asked.

“Yes,” Bilbo said. He opened his mouth to tell Dwalin how worryingly high Thorin’s fever had crept, but then closed it again, for he did not wish to do any more to upset the poor little dwarves, and he knew from experience that they always heard more than anyone intended.

“I think I should fetch Lily,” he said instead.

“Aye,” Dwalin replied. “It seems we’ve a need.”

Bilbo nodded. “I’ll go directly,” he said. He crossed the room to say goodbye to the children—for he felt he could not simply leave, even for a short time, without telling them he was going—but when he came near, a small hand—Kili’s, he decided after a careful inspection—reached out from the bundle of little dwarves and seized the edge of his waistcoat.

“Mr Bilbo,” Kili whispered. “Don’t leave me on my own.”

“Well, you are not on your own,” Bilbo said, doing his best to stroke Kili’s head—though finding it was not a simple task, for combined the two dwarves seemed to have far more than twice as much hair as they each had alone. “You are with your brother, and Mr Dwalin, too.”

“Mr Bilbo,” Kili said again, and although he did not say anything else, the plea in his tone was clear enough. Bilbo frowned down at them both, and then looked up at Dwalin, who eyed him silently for a moment, then seemed to come to some kind of decision. He held out the bundle of children, as if he expected Bilbo to take them in his arms.

“I’ll go,” he said.

“Well, that is not—” Bilbo started, but Dwalin held the children out insistently, and Bilbo decided that arguing would only delay the arrival of Lily, who was very much needed. Still, he knew he had not really the strength to carry both children at once, and so he gestured to the armchair by the fire where they were wont to sit, and Dwalin took them and deposited them gently there. When he tried to let go, though, Kili’s little hand grasped for him, as well, finding and seizing the first three fingers of one of his hands. Dwalin, standing over them, stared down at his hand thus captured with an inscrutable expression, then after a moment, wrapped both of his own huge hands around Kili’s small one and knelt in front of them.

“I’m not going far,” he said. “I’m bringing back the healer to make your uncle better. Mr Bilbo will look after you and make sure nothing happens.”

He gestured to Bilbo, who came and stood beside him. Dwalin took Bilbo’s hand in his own, then transferred Kili’s little hand from his grasp to Bilbo’s. “Good lads,” he murmured, then stood, and without another moment’s hesitation stalked out of the room.

“Mr Bilbo,” Kili whimpered, and Bilbo knelt down himself, eager to prevent any kind of further upset.

“I’m here,” he said. “I’m here, Master Dwarf. Are you feeling a little better?”

There was no reply to this, and Bilbo began to worry—not just about Kili, but about Fili, too, whose face he had not seen and voice he had not heard for quite some time. The dwarves were seated rather sideways in the chair, and each of them had their face buried in the other’s shoulder. They were also rather enveloped in a blanket that Mr Dwalin had procured from somewhere, and, aside from Kili’s hand in Bilbo’s, they seemed rather like a limbless, headless beast made entirely of hair.

“Well, this has all been quite a to-do,” Bilbo said. He wondered what else he might say, but found nothing very useful in his mind for the occasion. “Fili, lad—your uncle is quite out of his wits,” he said. “And you know he certainly did not mean to hurt you. Of course you know that.”

There was no answer from Fili, nor even the slightest shift in him to suggest he had heard what Bilbo said, but Bilbo saw the flash of a dark eye through Fili’s hair: apparently at least on of the dwarves was listening.

“Mr Bilbo,” Kili said, sounding very tearful indeed, “did Uncle Thorin hit Fili?”

It was at that moment that Bilbo remembered that Kili had still been trapped in his nightmare when his uncle’s muddled violence had fallen upon his brother, and so perhaps had no memory at all of witnessing it. Certainly, it had not been Bilbo’s intention of thus narrating it to him, and he saw from the way the half of the bundle that was most probably Fili stiffened at the words that it was not something he wanted, either. But ah! It was done, and none of us can take back words once we have already said them, however much we might like to.

“Well—” Bilbo said, wondering whether to lie or try somehow to smooth out the wrinkles in the truth, “well, you see, your uncle is quite confused—due to his illness, you see—and—”

He stopped in his speech, then, for Kili had suddenly taken his hand from Bilbo’s, and reached up instead to pat his brother’s hair.

“That’s mean,” he whispered. “He’s mean sometimes now but it’s because he’s ill. I’ll look after you, don’t cry.”

Bilbo blinked in surprise, and was even more surprised, a moment later, to hear the muffled sound of Fili’s voice from somewhere in the vicinity of Kili’s shoulder, saying something that sounded like it might have been I’m not crying.

“There, there,” Kili said, patting him on the head again. “There, there.”

Bilbo sat back on his heels, finding himself suddenly rather unnecessary. But a moment later, he became less so, for Kili’s eyes appeared again, peeping at him over Fili’s shoulder.

“Mr Bilbo,” he whispered, “can you read Fili a story?”

“Oh—of course,” Bilbo said, getting to his feet and turning towards his bookshelf. “Of course. What sort of story would he like?”

There was no response from Fili, and Kili’s eyes disappeared again as he buried his face deeper into their little bundle. There was some whispering, and then Bilbo distinctly heard Fili say I don’t want a story, leave me alone. Then Kili’s eyes reappeared.

“He says one about horsies,” he said.

Bilbo stood a moment in a quandary—but, for want of anything better to do, he found a book that indeed contained several stories about horses, sat down, and began to read. He was rather worried, given what Fili had said, that this would only serve to make him more miserable, and he kept a close eye on the bundle of dwarves as he read. But as the story wove on, with its magical horses and great adventures, he saw that slowly—slowly—Fili began to uncurl himself a little. By the time he was halfway through, Kili was staring at him with that rapt attention he always had when it came to stories. But by the time he heard Dwalin and Lily’s voices outside the door, even Fili’s face had reappeared, and he sat now with Kili in his lap and the blanket wrapped around them, both looking tear-streaked and very much the worse for wear, but deeply involved in the story nonetheless.

Bilbo broke off as Dwalin came into the room, his face in shadow now, for it was beginning to grow quite dark outside. He strode over to the fire and frowned down at the children for a moment, then knelt in front of them as he had before. He reached out and took Kili from his brother, hugging him briefly and then depositing him on Bilbo’s lap without so much as a by-your-leave, so that Bilbo had to move his book very quickly to avoid it being creased. Then he leaned forward and drew Fili into a warm embrace, one that was at the same time both ferocious and tender, such that Bilbo hugged Kili to himself and felt rather misty-eyed. Dwalin pressed his forehead against Fili’s, and even after he sat back, he kept one hand on Fili’s shoulder.

“Your uncle’s not well,” he said. “You understand that, laddie?”

Fili’s eyes were bright, but he swallowed and nodded.

Dwalin nodded, too. “He’ll be proud of you when he’s back to himself,” he said. “And I’m proud of you now.”

A tear trickled down Fili’s cheek, but he only nodded again. Dwalin clapped him gently on the shoulder.

“I’d better go and look after your uncle,” he said. He began to rise, but then Fili finally spoke.

“Can I have Kili back?” he whispered, his voice sounding rather thick.

Dwalin paused, then turned back and plucked Kili from Bilbo’s lap (luckily, Bilbo was prepared for this and let go without a fuss). He hugged him briefly again, then held him out to his brother, who was already reaching for him. Kili himself made no protest at any of these proceedings—indeed, he seemed much as he often did after having a nightmare, quiet and lacking in energy, and wanting only to be held by someone. And so it seemed the two little dwarves both wanted the same thing in that moment—to be holding someone, and preferably each other.

Dwalin rose, then, and laid a hand on Bilbo’s shoulder before striding from the room. Bilbo watched as the two little dwarves rearranged themselves until they were comfortable, then he leaned forward and tucked the blanket around them. They were watching him, both still looking rather miserable, but with an expectation about them that Bilbo understood when he went to sit back in his chair and found the book waiting for him there.

“Well,” he said, picking it up and opening to the story, “where were we?”

Chapter Text

It was not long after Bilbo started reading a second story to the little dwarves that he heard voices outside his door once again, and a moment later, Ham Gamgee appeared in the living room, smiling and taking off his cap.

“Evening, Mr Bilbo,” he said. “Evening, little rascals.”

“Oh—hello, Ham,” Bilbo said. “I’m afraid we’re all a little busy at the moment—”

“Oh, aye, Miss Lily told me,” Ham said. “She said as you’ve got a lot to do and you’d be needing someone to look after these two for a while, and how Rose is busy with her own and could I help? And of course I said yes, though I’m hopeful of getting away without being tickled to death.” He grinned at the two little dwarves, but although Kili gave him a wan half-smile, neither of them looked very likely to be tickling anyone in the near future.

Bilbo, rather confused by this, opened his mouth to say that he didn’t have anything much to do, except for looking after the children, when Dwalin suddenly appeared behind Ham.

“Mr Baggins,” he said. “I’ve need of your help.”

“Oh,” Bilbo said, getting to his feet. But a small hand reached out to catch at his, and he turned to see Kili looking mournful indeed.

“Don’t leave us alone, Mr Bilbo,” he whispered.

“Oh, now,” Bilbo said, crouching to better look the little dwarves in the eye. “I am only going to see your uncle. He is only two rooms away! And so shall I be. And Mr Ham will look after you—I know you like him.”

Kili did not reply to this, but only looked even more fretful. Bilbo sighed, reaching out and laying a hand on his head.

“If you need me, come and find me,” he said. “I need to help your uncle, now.”

“Sh, Kili,” Fili said, sounding rather hoarse. He tightened his grip around his brother’s waist. “Mr Bilbo needs to go and help Uncle, he can’t just sit here reading us stories all the time.”

Bilbo patted Kili’s shoulder, and then stood and turned to Ham. “Well, I’m in the middle of reading them a story,” he said. “I’m sure they’d like to hear the rest. And they’ve been—rather upset today, so they need a gentle touch.”

Ham nodded, taking up the book, and Bilbo went to see what Dwalin wanted. But he glanced back when he reached the hall, and saw Kili’s dark eyes peeping around the back of the chair at him, looking tragic indeed. He sighed, then smiled and waved, and Kili disappeared from sight suddenly, as if someone had pulled him away. Bilbo shook his head, then looked at Dwalin, who had apparently observed all of this and was frowning in a rather discontented way.

“What can I help with?” he asked.

Dwalin did not speak, but took him by the arm and led him to Thorin’s room. There, Lily was soaking the dwarf king’s brow with a wet cloth, and she looked up as they entered.

“Ah—good,” she said. “Bilbo, do you have a bath?”

“A bath?” Bilbo asked. “Well—yes, I have two, as it happens.”

“Good,” Lily said. “Fetch it. We will need to fill it with snow.”

“With—snow?” Bilbo asked, glancing up at Dwalin.

“His fever’s high,” Dwalin said, glowering at Thorin. “She says it could kill him.”

“Well, I don’t know about dwarves,” Lily said, as though it was something she had already said several times that day. “But if a hobbit had a fever like this—well. Bilbo, the bath.”

“Oh, of course—of course,” Bilbo said. He hurried to find it, and found Dwalin hard on his heels—for which he was thankful, for carrying his larger bath was not the easiest of tasks. When it came to it, though, Dwalin was able to carry it without any assistance from Bilbo at all, and when he set it down in Thorin’s room, Bilbo found himself looking at it rather doubtfully.

“I don’t know if it is big enough,” he said.

“It’ll have to be,” Dwalin said, going over to the bed. “Help me undress him.”

“Undress—?” Bilbo started, but then he understood. “Oh—yes.” He hurried over, but before he began to unknot the laces of Thorin’s shirt, he paused, feeling rather—odd. Well, it was odd indeed, to be undressing a dwarf king in his own hobbit hole. Odd, indeed.

“Mr Baggins,” Dwalin said, a little sharply. “I need your help.”

Bilbo, rather startled, realised that he was simply standing and staring at Thorin. “Oh—I do apologise,” he said. He hurried to unlace the shirt, and then Dwalin lifted Thorin into a sitting position, and Bilbo pulled the shirt over his head. Dwalin laid Thorin down again, and Bilbo found himself staring once more. He had, of course, seen the little dwarves unclothed a time or two, and so he knew that dwarves had an unusual amount of hair, not only on their heads but also their bodies. But he had not been quite prepared for the liberality with which nature had equipped Thorin Oakenshield with hair upon his chest and arms, nor for the muscles which moved under his skin as he shifted and groaned, nor for the bare paths that cut through the hair, which must have been old scars, nor, indeed, for the—the tattoos —

“Mr Baggins!” Dwalin said, sounding as though it was not the first time he had said it.

Bilbo jumped, and saw that, as he had been contemplating, Dwalin had removed Thorin’s breeches, leaving him naked but for his smallclothes, and now stood scowling at Bilbo.

“Help me get him to the bath,” he said.

Bilbo swallowed—his mouth was rather dry for some reason—and took hold of Thorin’s arm, trying to get it over his shoulder. Of course, he was of little help, but he did his best to take some of the burden from Dwalin, and between the two of them they half-carried, half-dragged Thorin to the bath, and somehow lifted him enough to get him over the side. Bilbo was very aware of the heat from Thorin’s arm where it lay heavy on the back of his neck, and from his side where it pressed against Bilbo’s cheek, and when at last he was able to let go he felt oddly cold, despite the exertion.

“It is rather small,” he ventured. Thorin was in the bath, more or less, but his arms and legs trailed out of it, and his head lolled with no support.

“Do you know of any bigger that we could lay our hands on?” Dwalin asked.

“No—no, in fact it is on the larger side for a hobbit bath,” Bilbo said.

“Aye,” said Dwalin, as if he had already guessed this for himself. “Help me push it against the wall so he’s a place to rest his head.”

Pushing the bath with Thorin in it was almost more difficult than carrying him to it in the first place, and by the time it was up against the wall, both Dwalin and Bilbo were panting and red in the face from exertion, and Lily had returned with a bucket of snow.

“Good,” she said briskly. “Now—Mr Dwalin, if you would.”

She held out the bucket to Dwalin, and he took it and made to pour it over Thorin’s stomach. Bilbo wondered vaguely why she had not done it herself. But he stopped wondering when Dwalin tipped the bucket, for as the snow landed on Thorin’s skin, his eyes snapped open and he sat upright with a roar or fury. Bilbo jumped back, having already experienced the consequences of Thorin’s delirious rage more than once, but Lily darted forward, and Bilbo saw she had in her hand a little bottle, so alike to the one that had been broken a few days before that they might have been twins. This bottle she thrust under Thorin’s nose, even as Dwalin protected her with great efficiency from Thorin’s flailing limbs, and after a tense moment or two, Thorin’s eyes suddenly rolled upwards in his head, and he sagged back into the bath.

“Hmph,” said Lily, standing back and dusting herself off with a look of some disapproval. Then she turned to Dwalin. “Thank you for your assistance.”

Dwalin gave her a silent nod, then picked up the bucket. “We’ve a way to go,” he said.

“No—I’ll do that,” Bilbo said. “If he wakes up again, you will need to be here to subdue him.”

Dwalin contemplated him for a moment, then nodded and held the bucket out.

“Have you another?” Lily asked. “The more snow, the better.”

And so, Bilbo and Lily spent the next half hour collecting snow and filling the bath with it. It was hot work, despite the cold weather outside, and when at last the bath was full of a mixture of water and snow, both Bilbo and Lily were quite fatigued. Thorin had not awoken, but lay shivering in the bath, mumbling from time to time, his eyes darting under their closed lids and his hair wet with sweat and plastered to his forehead. Dwalin stood and watched over him, dark and furious. But even he, with all his strength, could do nothing but watch.

Lily set down her bucket and sighed. “I will stay here tonight,” she said. “Though I don’t know what more I can do.”

“Thank you,” said Bilbo, and Dwalin said it at the same moment. Lily waved her hand.

“Can’t be having patients die on me, even if they are very ill-mannered,” she said. “Bilbo—you will need to keep this water cold. And the little dwarves will be needing some supper—I’ll make it.”

“Oh—” Bilbo started, meaning to tell her that of course he would make the supper—but she had already gone, and when he went to go after her, Dwalin laid a hand on his shoulder.

“I’ll need you here, laddie,” he said. “Let her do it, if she’s a mind.”

And so Bilbo did. He spent the evening carrying buckets of snow, and snatched his supper in between trips. The little dwarves were put to bed by Ham and Lily—though Kili cried pitiably until Bilbo came and gave him a hug and a kiss good night (and gave Fili the same for good measure)—and Ham went home, but Lily made up a bed for herself in an empty guest room, and stayed up late, testing Thorin’s temperature every now and then and feeding him potions which might or might not have been having any effect. Thorin’s fever remained high, but it did not rise, and even seemed to have fallen a little, which Lily attributed to the bath of snow. And so, in the bath he remained, and Bilbo and Dwalin took turns at bringing in the snow until well into the darkest hours of the night.

It was while Dwalin was out on one of these snow-collecting trips that Thorin finally woke—or half-woke, for though his eyes opened a little, he did not seem to be looking at anything that Bilbo could see.

“Where are you?” he murmured. “It’s dark already.”

His voice, though still deep, sounded pained and thin, and Bilbo, seated on a low stool by his side, took up his hand and thought to try and comfort him if he could.

“I’m here,” he said. “Don’t worry, I’m here.”

Thorin mumbled something unintelligible and turned towards him, a grimace crossing his face. His hand gripped Bilbo’s own, but the grip was feeble, and Bilbo remembered how Thorin had almost crushed his hand only a few days before and felt worried indeed.

“Frerin,” Thorin murmured. “And the lads?”

“They’re quite all right,” Bilbo said. “They’ve gone to bed. It’s very late.”

“It’s too late,” Thorin said. “It’s too late, now.”

“No it isn’t,” Bilbo said, although he had not the first idea what Thorin thought it was too late for. “Hush, now.” He dipped a cloth in the water and laid it on Thorin’s forehead, and Thorin sank back, sighing with what sounded like relief.

“Who are you?” he asked, his hand tightening a little on Bilbo’s.

“No-one important,” Bilbo replied. He soaked the cloth again, and wiped across Thorin’s cheeks, his brow, his neck. “Lie quiet now, and get better. The children need you.”

“Mm,” Thorin murmured, and it seemed he slipped back into sleep, his eyes closing and his grip on Bilbo’s hand slackening. Bilbo kept cooling his face for a little while, though, and his eyes drifted down to the scars that criss-crossed Thorin’s chest. He could not see the wound that was currently causing Thorin so much trouble, for he sat at his other side, but it was clearly not the first wound Thorin had received. Bilbo found himself rather hoping it would be the last.

There was the sound of someone clearing their throat, and Bilbo started, realising he was staring. He turned and saw Dwalin leaning in the doorway, the bucket of snow in one hand. He raised an eyebrow at Bilbo, and Bilbo felt suddenly unaccountably warm, despite the fact that they had opened the window and damped the fire to assist in cooling Thorin’s fever.

“Oh,” he said. “Hello, yes. Er.”

Dwalin raised both eyebrows now, then crossed the room and tipped the snow into the bath. “Not every day you get an eyeful of the King Under the Mountain,” he said, sounding almost amused.

Bilbo coughed. “Yes, I—well, you see—I have never seen a dwarf before, you see. I mean—” he gestured helplessly, uncomfortably aware of the blood rising to his face. “Un—unclothed,” he finished faintly.

Dwalin snorted, then drew up a second stool. “You’ve seen the lads,” he said. “Or have they not bathed in the time they’ve been here?”

“Oh, yes, of course,” Bilbo said. “But they—well, they are less—”

“Hairy?” Dwalin asked, and now he laughed—only a chuckle, to be sure, but it was such a contrast to the grim atmosphere that had pervaded for most of the day and night that Bilbo felt as though the sun had peeped briefly out on an otherwise stormy day. “Aye, we take some time to grow it all, Mr Baggins. Why, Fili doesn’t even have the first hint of a beard and he’s full twenty years of age.”

“A beard?” Bilbo said. “Surely he is too young for a beard!”

Dwalin raised an eyebrow at him. “Thorin grew his first chin-hairs when he was seventeen,” he said, then smiled as if remembering something. “He would have been prouder if I hadn’t beaten him by a full three years.”

Bilbo blinked in surprise. Certainly, he had noticed that the lads were generally hairier than hobbit children, but the idea of growing a beard at Fili’s age—and indeed, apparently Dwalin had grown one when he was no older than Kili—well, it was quite difficult to imagine, to be sure! But then, it was difficult to imagine these great, hulking dwarves being children at all, so serious and grown-up were they now.

“Still, he’s had the better of me now,” Dwalin said, almost as if to himself, rubbing his hand over his bald head with a rueful look in Thorin’s direction.

“You have been friends for many years, then?” Bilbo asked, realising that, for as little as he knew about the little dwarves, he knew even less about the adult ones.

“Aye,” Dwalin said. “We were born on the same day, in the same mountain. We’ve been friends ever since. I don’t doubt one day we’ll arrive at halls of our fathers at the same moment.” He frowned at Thorin. “I don’t doubt it,” he said, as if arguing with someone invisible.

“You mean when you take back your kingdom?” Bilbo asked. “Erebor, was it?”

Dwalin glanced at him. “No,” he said. “That’s not what I meant.” He did not elaborate further, and seemed suddenly so gloomy that Bilbo was rather afraid to ask him. Thus, there was silence for some short space of time, and then Dwalin suddenly fixed Bilbo with a troubled frown.

“The lads,” he said. “Are they—changed since you first met them?”

“Changed?” Bilbo asked. “Well—they have grown a little fatter—though not so much as I would like. If that’s what you meant.”

Dwalin’s frown deepened into a scowl, though it did not appear to be directed against Bilbo, and in a moment it lightened again. “But in their minds,” he said. “In their behaviour.”

“As to that—yes, I suppose,” Bilbo said. “Fili is certainly a great deal less aggressive now than he was when they first arrived. And Kili is much more cheerful.”

This, though, did not seem to be what Dwalin had hoped to hear, for he sat back and glanced at the door, looking concerned indeed. Bilbo gathered up his courage a little.

“May I ask why you want to know?” he said, and then braced himself for a rebuff—for he was well-used by now to dwarves and their desire to keep every blamed thing a secret. But to his surprise, Dwalin did not look angry, or even annoyed. Instead, he frowned at Bilbo for a moment, and then sighed.

“They are changed,” he said. “I have known those lads since they took their first breaths in this world, and they are changed.”

“Oh dear,” Bilbo said, since it seemed that Dwalin was not particularly pleased with this change he saw. “What were they like before?”

“Fili—” said Dwalin, and shook his head. “I hardly recognise him. No, that is not true. I recognise half of him. But the other half—the half that was almost as mischievous as his brother—I do not know where that part of him has gone. Now he seems to be nothing but duty and gravity, as if he were two hundred, not twenty.”

“Oh, yes,” Bilbo said. “He is a very serious child. Yes, I have been worried about him—I have wanted to talk to you about him. I do think Thorin—not to blame Thorin, certainly—well, it is a little his fault, after all —” He trailed off, feeling suddenly that criticising the king in the presence of his loyal lieutenant might not be a very sensible idea.

“Say what you want to say,” Dwalin said, and Bilbo gulped and then plunged onwards.

“Well, it is only—he does seem to feel as though he is entirely responsible for his brother’s wellbeing,” he said. “And of course, he is so young himself—I am astonished that he kept them both alive for so long, but he seems to view it as some sort of failure.” He wondered whether to mention Fili’s fear of becoming king, but felt as though he should not on purely superstitious grounds, in case speaking of it might somehow make it more likely to come true.

Dwalin frowned. “Failure?” he said, then shook his head, looking suddenly rather enlightened. “Aye,” he murmured, as if to himself. “I see.”

“But—was he really once mischievous?” Bilbo asked, trying to imagine it. “He’s so quick to tell Kili off for putting a foot wrong.”

Dwalin’s expression became rather pained at this. “Aye,” he said. “He’s always had something of that to him—but not the way he does now. At an important event, with distinguished visitors, maybe. But the rest of the time, he’d be the ringleader of whatever they got up to, more likely that not.”

“Oh,” Bilbo said. He thought about Kili and Fili together—how sometimes, Fili seemed suddenly much more like a child, laughing and playing ridiculous games with his brother, as if he had forgotten, however briefly, his great responsibility. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I see.” He sighed. “Well—I hope perhaps he might become more himself, once the memory of what they went through has faded a little. I’m sure he had to be very strict with Kili to keep them both alive.”

Dwalin did not reply to this, and after a moment, Bilbo remembered that he had spoken of both dwarves being changed. “What about Kili?” he asked. “He is still quite lively, after all.”

Dwalin smiled a little at this. “Aye—he is more himself than Fili,” he said. “But I have never known him to cling so. He has always been close to his brother, of course, but now—it seems he cannot bear to be left alone.”

“Yes, that is certainly true,” Bilbo said. “He gets very upset if he thinks he is alone. But after what happened to them—well, you can hardly blame him.”

Dwalin cast a scowl at Bilbo. “What happened to them,” he said, almost as though it was a question. But of course, Bilbo only knew in the very broadest terms, and so he could not answer. It seemed that Dwalin did not expect him to, for he shook his head. “These nightmares,” he said. “Does he have them often?”

“Hm—perhaps once a week or so,” Bilbo said. “Sometimes more often, sometimes less.”

“And are they always so frightening?” Dwalin asked.

Bilbo was not sure whether he meant frightening for Kili or frightening for everyone else, but he decided it did not make much difference. “They are much the same,” he said. “You do get used to them.”

Dwalin looked rather as though he did not much care to get used to them. “A few days ago, he was screaming,” he said. “Fili said he was dreaming.”

Bilbo remembered—after all, his nose was still rather sore. “Yes—yes, it is rather strange,” he said. “Sometimes—he seems to forget where he is, and thinks he is back in the woods. He gets very upset. Fili says he is dreaming, but he always insists he is not. An odd thing, indeed.”

“Aye,” Dwalin muttered. “Odd, indeed.” He glared at nothing for a moment or two, then sighed and rose to his feet. “Snow’s melted,” he said, and picked up the bucket.

And so the night went on. Bilbo kept on taking his turn to collect snow, his limbs growing heavy with exhaustion, and his hands and feet rather numb from his constant forays out into the cold night. Some time a few hours before dawn, he sat down on the stool by Thorin’s bath and closed his eyes for a moment.

When he opened them again, he was in an unfamiliar bed, and wan sunlight was playing on the wall beside him. He sat up, feeling rather alarmed, only to find that in fact, it was not so unfamiliar after all: he was in Thorin’s bed, and someone had covered him over with a blanket. Thorin still lay in the bath, but there was no-one else in the room.

Bilbo got out of bed, feeling sandy-eyed and rather grumpy. He went over to Thorin and laid a hand on his forehead—his temperature did not seem to have changed very much, which Bilbo supposed was better than some possibilities but still far from ideal, given how high it was. He looked pale indeed in the morning sunlight, only his cheeks hectic with fever, and his dark hair stood out even more plainly against the pallor of his skin.

“I don’t know why you can’t just get better,” Bilbo told him, feeling rather frustrated. “Why do dwarves never do what they’re told?”

“We’re not the most obedient, it’s true,” came Dwalin’s voice, and Bilbo started, and turned to find him standing once more in the doorway.

“You are a lot quieter than you look, Mr Dwalin,” Bilbo said, feeling rather put out. “I wish you would not sneak about so!”

“My brother would be astonished to hear that I am able to sneak at all,” Dwalin said, with a strange sort of half-smile. But then he jerked his head at Bilbo. “Come. The lads will not eat without you.”

When Bilbo reached the kitchen, though, he found this was not quite true: in fact, it was only Kili who was refusing to eat, while Fili anxiously argued with him, and Lily looked on, arms folded. All three looked up when Bilbo came in, and Fili’s expression dissolved into relief, while Kili looked suddenly as though he might cry, and held his arms out to be hugged.

“Mr Bilbo,” he whispered. “Where’ve you been?”

“I told you,” Lily said, looking quite unimpressed. “Mr Bilbo has been asleep. He’s been looking after your uncle all night, and he needs his rest.”

“But Mr Bilbo always has breakfast with us!” Kili said, looking quite anguished. Bilbo quickly scooped him up, and Kili wrapped his arms around Bilbo’s neck as if he meant to never let go.

“Well, it is certainly true that I don’t like to miss breakfast,” he said, trying to sound cheerful and sitting down on the bench. “Now, what’s this, Master Kili? I thought you liked breakfast even more than I do!”

“Yes, I like it,” Kili whispered, and commenced eating the food that appeared to have been on his plate for some little while. It was rather awkward, as he refused to let go of Bilbo entirely and so could only eat with one hand, and of course, being Kili, he made rather a mess. Still, he was eating, and Bilbo supposed that was good enough. Certainly, it meant that Fili turned to his own breakfast, rather than worrying about Kili’s, and Bilbo managed to serve himself despite the difficulty of having Kili in his lap, and so they all had something to eat, which was, after all, largely the point of breakfast. But after breakfast, Lily went to examine Thorin, and when she returned she shook her head and said that they must continue to try and keep him cool. And so it seemed they had a long day ahead of them.

As it was, though, Bilbo was not to go straight out into the snow with his bucket. For Lily stopped him in the hallway, with rather a frown on her face (though since this was not an unusual expression for her to wear, Bilbo did not think much of it).

“Now, Bilbo,” she said. “I know you are not much experienced with children, but I think you should not spoil the little one so.”

Well, now Bilbo found himself frowning, too. “Spoil him?” he said. “How have I been spoiling him?”

“This morning, for example,” Lily said. “He was behaving quite poorly, insisting that he would not eat his breakfast. And when you gave him what he wanted, well, of course now he will think he can have his own way in anything. It is not good for children to coddle them so.”

Bilbo blinked at her, then felt briefly quite incensed. Luckily for him, his more sensible side took over before he could say anything that might damage his relationship with Lily—who, after all, had been a true friend during his hour of need, and indeed was only trying to help him even now.

“Thank you for your advice,” he said, managing not to sound overly short, “but it is quite true that I do eat breakfast with the children every day, and so of course Kili was confused by my not being there. And with all the goings-on today and yesterday, well, no wonder he is apt to be upset by changes he does not understand! I am not spoiling him—not at all. I am trying to make sure he feels safe—for after all, there has been little enough of that in his life recently.”

Lily raised her eyebrows at this minor tirade. “Well,” she said, “you are entitled to do what you will with your own dwarves, of course.” Then she looked like she was going to say something else, but apparently decided against it, instead turning and going into Thorin’s room. Bilbo, meanwhile, went out into the garden, and if he was unaccountably angry, well, a short while of shovelling snow soon put paid to that.

****

It was long, rather miserable day. Bilbo felt the effects of his interrupted sleep, for by midday he felt he was moving very slowly and heavily, and likewise his thoughts moved slowly in his mind. There was less to do than in the night—still some snow to bring in, and food to prepare at regular of intervals, of course, but Ham arrived after breakfast and cheerfully offered his help, and Rose appeared some time after that, and so there were hands a-plenty to do the work required. Bilbo washed Thorin’s clothes—for they were in dire need of it—and then set about stripping and remaking the bed, seeing as he at last had the opportunity. In between times, he did what he could to reassure the little dwarves, who were being kept well out of the way of Thorin’s room, but were both nonetheless clearly affected by the tension in the atmosphere. Fili was pale and silent, and Kili clung to whoever happened to be nearby—as long as it was Bilbo, Dwalin or his brother—and seemed perpetually tearful for no good reason.

Shortly after lunch, Lily announced that Thorin could be moved back to the bed, and there was a great to-do over moving him, with Dwalin, Bilbo and Ham all lending their arms and backs to the task. But alas! Only two hours later, Thorin’s fever began to climb again, and he began to mumble and shiver. Lily waited for perhaps another half hour before she shook her head in some mixture of concern and exasperation, and then the whole task of moving Thorin—and of shovelling snow—began again.

And underneath it all, Bilbo felt a knot in his stomach that only grew tighter and more painful as the day went on. For Thorin showed no sign of improvement, but only seemed to grow worse, and every time Bilbo looked at him he thought that he seemed to have wasted away a little more, though of course that could not be possible. How could anyone, even with the robust constitution of a dwarf, withstand such a grinding illness? Bilbo did not know, and he tried very hard not to think of how far away the dwarf healer might be, or if the raven had even understood Kili’s message at all.

Day drifted into night, and very little changed. Bag End lay in the grip of an exhausted silence, and no-one spoke more than they needed to. Even Thorin’s unintelligible mumbling had subsided, and he lay as if dead—although once that thought had entered Bilbo’s head, he tried very hard to extinguish it. And when it came time for the little dwarves to go to bed, another problem arose.

“Mr Bilbo,” Ham said, standing at the door to Thorin’s room with an apologetic expression on his face. “Your little Kili will not go to sleep.”

“Why not?” Bilbo asked.

But Ham could only shake his head. “He won’t talk to me,” he said. “I don’t know why.”

And so Bilbo went to the little dwarves’ room, and there he found Fili, fast asleep, arms wrapped around his brother, and said brother with his eyes wide open staring at the door, his doll tucked into the front of his shirt. When he saw Bilbo, he immediately reached out his arms, and Bilbo smiled at him.

“Time for bed, now,” he whispered, so as not to wake Fili—who looked exhausted even in his sleep. He leaned over and kissed Kili, and hugged him as best he could without disturbing his brother, but when he tried to pull away, Kili would not let him go.

“Don’t leave me on my own, Mr Bilbo,” he whispered.

“Don’t be foolish, now,” Bilbo said. “You need to go to sleep.”

Kili shuddered and pressed his face against Bilbo’s chest. “I’m scared,” he whispered.

Well, perhaps Lily was right, and Kili truly was accustomed to getting his own way; or perhaps Bilbo was right, and he was a frightened child who needed to be given some extra consideration at this difficult time. But whichever was true, Bilbo found he did not have the heart to leave the poor creature on his own, and so, after a moment’s hesitation, he climbed onto the bed beside him. Kili rearranged the covers so that Bilbo could crawl under them, and Bilbo decided he would stay for long enough for Kili to fall asleep. He lay down and put his arms around both dwarves—and so tight was Fili’s embrace of Kili that he was able to do this without stretching too much. Kili, sandwiched now in between Fili and Bilbo, wriggled a little and then sighed and pressed his face into the pillow.

“Thank you, Mr Bilbo,” he mumbled, already sounding halfway to sleep.

“You’re welcome,” Bilbo said.

And then he fell asleep himself.

****

Bilbo was startled awake by a sudden hammering at the door. He sat up, heart thumping in his chest and not entirely sure where he was for the second time in two days. Then he heard Kili’s voice beside him.

“Mr Bilbo, who’s that?”

“Sh, Kili,” Fili whispered. “Mr Bilbo, should we hide?”

At that moment, Ham Gamgee’s voice could be heard, somewhat muffled.

“Mr Bilbo, wake up! Wake up, it’s dwarves!”

Bilbo leapt to his feet. “Stay here,” he whispered to the two little dwarves. “Close the door and don’t open it unless it’s me or Mr Dwalin.” Then he fairly ran to the hall, glad for once that he had fallen asleep in his clothes, and seizing Fili’s sword, which he had concealed in his mother’s glory box after Thorin’s arrival.

Dwalin and Lily were both already in the hall. Dwalin was carrying his great axe in his hands and had a dark gleam in his eye. He nodded at Bilbo, then stood to one side of the door, concealed behind it as Bilbo opened it a crack and raised his lantern. There, on the other side, he saw Ham and another young hobbit, who after a moment he recognised as Ham’s cousin who lived in Bywater. Both of them were out of breath, their cheeks red in the lamplight.

“Mr Bilbo,” Ham gasped. “Our Andy saw dwarves passing by his house! Two of ’em, he says! He’s run here that fast, but they’ll be in Hobbiton before we know it!”

Bilbo stepped back from the door at that, and let the two young hobbits in. Both quailed rather when Dwalin emerged from the shadows, but Ham, somewhat used to Dwalin—though not to his axe—recovered himself quickly.

“You’re sure they were dwarves?” Dwalin asked.

Andy, looking rather terrified, nodded quickly.

“They were too tall to be hobbits, and too broad with it,” he said. “Had to be dwarves, so my old dad said.”

Dwalin nodded. “Did you see their faces?”

Andy shook his head. “They wore hoods, and it was dark,” he said. “We didn’t stop em or speak to em—I’ve heard they’re dangerous folk, dwarves.” He paused and swallowed. “Begging your pardon, present company excepted, of course.”

Dwalin fingered his axe, as though he wasn’t entirely pleased to be excepted.

“Could it be Oin?” Bilbo asked, hoping against hope. But Dwalin frowned and shook his head.

“Too soon,” he said.

Bilbo’s heart sank, then, and he began to feel quite frightened. Perhaps, then, the dwarf who had pretended to be Mr Bofur had gone away and come back with reinforcements. This time they had Dwalin, it was true, but he was only one dwarf against two, and if there were two, then certainly there might be more.

“Stay here,” Dwalin said to him then, pulling Bilbo from his troubled thoughts.

“What?” he said. “Oh, no, I certainly will not. What if you are hurt, or worse? No, I must come with you.” And even through all his fear, he felt this as surely as he felt the ground beneath his feet: he could not allow Dwalin to go out alone.

“And what will you do if I am hurt?” Dwalin asked. “Offer them tea until they surrender?”

Bilbo, who had not thought that far ahead, found himself somewhat flummoxed. And yet, he knew with great certainty that he could not allow Dwalin to go out against their enemies alone.

“I will do what I can,” he said, trying to sound firm and confident, though the quaver in his voice rather ruined the effect. He raised Fili’s little sword, and was pleased to see his hands were not shaking. Ham and Andy looked rather impressed, but Dwalin only raised an eyebrow.

“Think that wee thing’ll go up against a dwarvish battle-axe?” he asked.

“Well,” Bilbo said, finally succeeding in sounding much more brave than he felt, “I suppose I will find out.”

Dwalin stared at him in silence for a long moment, then abruptly laughed and clapped him on the shoulder with enough force to send him staggering.

“Aye, you’ve got spirit,” he said, then turned to Lily. “Barricade the door. Here.” He took one of his smaller axes from his back and handed it to Lily, then gave the other to Ham, and a knife to Andy. “Look after those wee lads.”

Ham and Andy looked speechless with terror, which Bilbo thought was perfectly understandable. Lily, though, simply hefted the axe in her hands and nodded, turning to Bilbo.

“Don’t do anything overly foolish,” she said. “I have no wish to be raising your dwarves for you.”

“Well, I will do my best,” Bilbo said. And then Dwalin grunted and strode out of the door, and Bilbo, his heart swooping in his chest, followed behind.

They went down the hill without speaking, the crunch of Dwalin’s heavy boots in the snow loud in Bilbo’s ears. The night was cloudless and cold, and the moonlight was strong enough to see a great deal—but of course, it meant that they could be more easily seen as well. At the foot of the hill, Dwalin paused.

“Which direction are they coming from?” he asked in a low murmur.

In answer, Bilbo gestured towards the road to Bywater. But before they started in that direction, there was the sound of voices in the distance—quiet, but distinct in the still air. All Hobbiton was abed, and on such a cold night Bilbo could think of no reason why any hobbit might be abroad. And yet, someone was.

Someone on the Bywater Road.

Dwalin laid a finger to his lips—as if Bilbo needed to be told to be quiet—and then crept forward. He was surprisingly quiet, for a dwarf, though of course very loud compared to a hobbit. Bilbo tiptoed behind him, Fili’s sword feeling heavy in his hand, and an unfortunate memory of the sole time he had tried to wield it—during which it had become clear to him that fighting with swords was a great deal more difficult than it always seemed in books—repeating itself time and again in his head. If Dwalin should fall—but no. No, it did not bear thinking about.

When Dwalin was close to where the road to Bywater passed out of the village, he stopped, and slipped into the shadow of a little grove of trees. Bilbo followed him, and both stood, barely breathing. Listening. They heard no more voices on the road, but after a long, breathless interval, Bilbo’s ears caught the sound of a crunching footstep, and then another. His throat grew dry, and he clutched at Dwalin’s arm.

“I heard it,” Dwalin said, the words almost soundless. He hefted his axe in his hands, and Bilbo felt as though his heart would beat out of his chest.

The footsteps became clearer—and now the murmur of voices as well. Bilbo crept to the edge of the trees and peered out. There on the road were two figures, and indeed, they could only be dwarves, though they were cloaked and hooded and nothing could be seen of their faces. Bilbo swallowed and looked for any glint of weapons, but he could see none—but then, of course, they were undoubtedly concealed under their cloaks. His hands felt slippery with sweat on the hilt of Fili’s sword, and he began to feel foolish indeed—for what good could he, a little hobbit, do against two such armed and dangerous creatures.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. The footsteps seemed in time with Bilbo’s racing heart, and he began to think he might give himself and Dwalin away purely by crying out to break the tension. He bit the inside of his cheek and tried to imagine himself as a kingly dwarf warrior, with broad shoulders and a bristling beard, in the hope that it would make him feel braver.

Whether this would have worked or not, Bilbo never found out, for the next moment the silence was broken by the sound of a loud, exasperated voice.

“I said, that must be it up ahead! And now I’ll be waking folk up in their beds, all because you need a new ear trumpet!”

Bilbo almost swallowed his tongue, so startled was he, but he was still more startled a moment later, for Dwalin suddenly burst from the cover of the trees, making no attempt at stealth, and swinging his axe in his hands. The two figures on the road stopped dead, and Bilbo gripped his sword as tightly as he could.

“Well, I think we’ve found it, then,” said one of the strange dwarves.

“Aye, that you have,” Dwalin said. “Oin. There’s no time to waste.”

The other strange dwarf immediately began to hurry towards Dwalin, then, and Bilbo, understanding at last, sank against the trunk of a tree, feeling as though his legs might not hold him up much longer.

“Dwarves!” he whispered faintly.

Dwalin and the dwarf who must certainly be Mr Oin were already passing by Bilbo’s hiding place, Dwalin explaining Thorin’s condition in short, terse sentences. Bilbo closed his eyes and passed his hand over them. His sword slipped from his nerveless fingers and landed in the snow with a soft thud, and the second strange dwarf, who was at that moment passing the little grove, paused in his steps.

“Is someone there?” he asked.

Bilbo felt quite unequal to the task of talking to anyone at that moment, especially someone he did not know, but he could hardly hide in the trees like a ghost—not to mention, he really did want to get back to Bag End as quickly as possible—and so he bent to pick up the sword and then stepped out into the road.

“Hello,” he said, feeling anything more than this was quite beyond him.

The dwarf’s face was quite invisible under his hood, which was rather disconcerting, but the voice was cheerful enough. “You’ll be a halfling, then, will you?” he said. “Well, I never.”

“A hobbit, if you please,” Bilbo said, bobbing a half-bow. “Bilbo Baggins is my name. I have been looking after your king and his nephews.”

“Have you, indeed?” said the dwarf, sounding delighted. He put down his hood, then, to reveal a face quite as cheerful as his voice, with dark moustaches and a most ridiculous hat. “Well, then, I’m indebted to you,” he said, with a sweeping bow. “Bofur, at your service.”

Bilbo felt suddenly as astonished as if he had met a unicorn or other mythical creature. “Mr Bofur?” he said. “Mr Bofur the toymaker?”

“Aye, the very same,” Bofur said. “The lads have mentioned me, have they?”

“Oh yes—oh, they certainly have,” Bilbo said. “Oh, I am very pleased to meet you at last. Very pleased.”

“And I am pleased to be met,” Bofur said. “But now, we’ll lose the way if we don’t keep up with those two.”

“Well, it is my hobbit hole they’re going to, you know,” Bilbo said. “But yes—yes, of course we must go.”

And the two of them set off together, back up the hill towards Bag End—and for the first time in two days, Bilbo felt a small spark of hope.

Chapter Text

By the time Bilbo and Mr Bofur arrived back at Bag End, the hall – where Bilbo had left Ham, Andy and Lily all armed and waiting – was entirely empty. Bilbo closed the door behind them, and Bofur looked around with interest.

“Very cosy,” he said. “And where is everyone?”

“With Thorin, I suppose,” Bilbo said, and he led the way to the room where Thorin lay. And indeed, he was right: the room was full of people, both dwarves and hobbits, all gathered around the bath which contained the unconscious dwarf king. The new dwarf, Oin, was kneeling down beside the bath, inspecting Thorin’s wound. He had removed his hood, but all Bilbo could see of him at this moment was a great deal of grey hair. Dwalin stood behind him, arms folded, and Lily stood beside Dwalin, with Ham and Andy completing the picture. No-one spoke, and even the cheerful Mr Bofur grew suddenly solemn when he caught sight of the pale, wasted figure of his king.

Bilbo stood still, hardly daring to breathe in the tense silence – though what difference breathing would make to the situation, he could not have said if asked. He realised, with a sinking heart, that he had been concentrating so hard on how they might bring the dwarven healer to Thorin’s side, it had not really occurred to him to think what might happen once that was accomplished. And yet, here Oin was, and Thorin was still ill, and however good a healer he might be, there was certainly no small chance that Thorin might die anyway. So he waited, and he barely breathed, and he hoped that somehow, somehow, everything might now change.

At last, Oin sat back.

“Well,” he said. “This is not very good at all.”

Bilbo’s mouth grew dry. Behind Oin, Dwalin’s expression became somehow even more furious.

“But have you anything that will help?” Lily asked. “I have tried several remedies, but nothing brought about an improvement.”

“Aye,” Oin said, getting to his feet with Lily’s help. “And I should think I would have the same luck trying to heal a halfling. But I can see that some good work’s been done.” He turned to face the rest of them. “I’ll do what I can. If I need you, I’ll call for you.”

At that, Bofur touched Bilbo’s elbow. “We’re not wanted,” he said. “Do you have anything to drink, Mr Baggins?”

“Mm?” Bilbo asked. “Oh. Yes, I’ll make some tea.”

“I suppose tea will do almost as well,” Mr Bofur said, and followed Bilbo out of the room. Ham and Andy trooped out as well, and said their farewells in the hallway. Lily and Dwalin remained in Thorin’s room, Lily presumably to help and Dwalin presumably to do a great deal of scowling. And Bilbo was quite happy to let them stay there.

In the kitchen, Bilbo busied himself heating water and finding something for his new guest to eat, and Mr Bofur managed somehow to help without getting in the way, which was rather a new experience for Bilbo when it came to dwarves. He was very quiet, and Bilbo did not speak either, sunk in worry about what would happen to Thorin now. His earlier joyful relief at finding that the terrifying dwarf intruders were none other than the desperately looked-for Oin and Mr Bofur had now completely drained away in the face of the clear fact that, Oin or no Oin, Thorin was dreadfully ill, and he felt quite gloomy.

But when all was in order and all that was left to do was to drink the tea, Bilbo sat down at the table and recovered a little of himself. After all, here was this Mr Bofur who he knew almost nothing about and who yet somehow felt like an old friend.

“Well,” Bilbo said. “Welcome to Bag End. And to Hobbiton, for that matter.”

Mr Bofur laughed, then, managing to seem cheerful even in these most trying of circumstances. “A warm welcome, indeed,” he said. “And a fine home you have here, Mr Baggins. We didn’t see very much of this country as we were passing through, it being dark and us hurrying the way we were – do all hobbits live in tunnels in the hillside?”

“Most, certainly,” Bilbo said. “But now, I must ask – how was it that you were able to come so quickly? You must have been travelling very swiftly indeed.”

“Oh, aye, in fact, we weren’t far away,” Mr Bofur said. “After Thorin and Dwalin didn’t meet us when they were meant to, we tried to find where they’d taken themselves off to, and then bless me if a raven didn’t arrive to tell us exactly what we needed to know! As it turned out, we were going in the right direction, though I doubt we would have found the place without help.”

“Oh yes, the raven,” Bilbo said, finding that even after everything, it was still difficult for him to believe that the bird could talk. “What did she say to you?”

“That she’d met a very polite little dwarf, and another one that was naughty, and also a half-man, and that we should go and find them because someone was sick,” Mr Bofur said with a grin. “I can guess who the polite and naughty little dwarves were, and I don’t mind telling you that we were that glad to hear that the lads were alive and well enough to be talking to ravens. And you would be the half-man, then. That was puzzling, to be sure.”

Bilbo had half a mind to complain about the rudeness of the description attached to him by the raven, but another thought was nagging at him. It took him a moment to fully grasp it, but when he did, he leapt to his feet in dismay, causing Mr Bofur to raise his eyebrows.

“Oh!” Bilbo said. “The lads!”

In all the crisis of going out and coming back, meeting Oin and Mr Bofur, worrying about Thorin and being relieved at the lack of hostile dwarves, Bilbo had completely forgotten that he had left his two little guests hiding in their room, terrified, with instructions not to open the door to anyone but himself or Dwalin. And they had not come out when all the dwarves arrived, which might mean that they had fallen asleep, but was much more likely to mean that they hadn’t been able to hear well enough to recognise the voices of the newcomers. Oh! Then what must they think had happened?

Bilbo didn’t stop to consider it further, but took off at a run, flying through the living room and into the hallway, and then along it to the door to the little dwarves’ room. It was firmly shut, and Bilbo knocked on it, rather more loudly than was probably warranted.

“Fili?” he called through the door. “Kili? Everything is all right. You can open the door.”

For a moment, there was only silence from the room beyond. Then Bilbo heard Fili’s muffled voice.

“Who else is out there?” he asked.

And well he might, for the little dwarves might not have been able to identify the voices of the newcomers, but they must surely have realised that more people had come into Bag End than had originally left it. Had they been huddled all this time, thinking the hobbit hole was full of enemies who might any moment burst in on them? Oh, Bilbo cursed his absent-mindedness!

“It’s Oin and your friend Mr Bofur,” Bilbo called. “The raven gave them the message and they have come to help your uncle.” He remembered the last time that he had brought someone he thought was Mr Bofur into his home, and added, “Mr Dwalin has confirmed that it is them.”

Another moment of silence. Then there was the sound of something heavy being moved and the door opened a crack. Fili’s face appeared in the gap, white and tense.

“Ah, Fili, lad,” Mr Bofur said – for he had followed Bilbo out into the hall – “you’re a sight for sore eyes.”

Fili looked at Bofur, then back at Bilbo. His face didn’t change. He closed the door, and then the sound of moving furniture occurred again. A moment later, the door opened fully. But Fili didn’t come out. In fact, he was nowhere to be seen when Bilbo stepped into the room. His sword lay abandoned on the floor, but both the dwarf himself and his brother were absent.

Well, Bilbo had learned a great deal about dwarf children – or at least, about two particular dwarf children – over the last few weeks, and he immediately got down on his hands and knees and peered under the bed. There, he saw Fili, whispering something to a shadowy lump beyond him that of course must be Kili. After a moment, Fili turned his head to look at him.

“I’m sorry it took me so long to come and tell you everything was all right,” Bilbo said. He tried to think of an explanation that wasn’t I forgot about you, which – while it was true – would not only be painful to admit but also rather cruel, but he could think of nothing. “Are you all right?”

“Kili’s scared,” Fili said. His voice was toneless, as though he were feeling no emotions at all. “He was scared the other dwarves might have come back for us.”

“Of course,” Bilbo said. He wondered whether he should apologise again. “But it is not the other dwarves,” he said at last. “It is your friends. Will you come out from under the bed?”

A silence. More whispering.

“Kili doesn’t want to,” Fili said.

Bilbo sat back on his heels, somewhat perplexed. Then he lowered himself to look under the bed again. “Why doesn’t he want to?” he asked. “Have you told him that Mr Bofur is out here? And that everything is safe?”

“Yes, I’ve told him,” Fili said, still in that blank sort of voice. “Can you leave us alone now, please?”

Bilbo sat back again, and then looked round at Mr Bofur. He was standing in the doorway, looking rather worried; the expression didn’t suit his face, and a moment later it was gone, replaced by cheerfulness.

“Ah, well,” he said. “It’s been quite a trying time for the lads, by all accounts. I can see them in the morning.”

And he turned away and disappeared down the hall in the direction of the kitchen.

Bilbo turned back to the bed, and the confusing little dwarves that it sheltered. He bent over again to look under it, then, with a sigh, lay down entirely, pressing one of his cheeks against the floor so he could more easily see. Fili was lying on his back, not looking at Bilbo. Kili was invisible beyond him.

“I’m sure you can’t be very comfortable under there,” Bilbo said. “You would be much more comfortable if you came out. Mr Bofur has gone now, I’m the only one here.”

Fili turned his face away. “We don’t want to come out,” he said.

Bilbo opened his mouth to ask again what possible reason there could be for wanting to stay in a dark, cramped, dusty space, but then he decided against it. He knew quite a great deal about dwarven stubbornness now, and in particular he knew that meeting it with stubbornness of his own rarely did any good. But oh, he did wish that the little dwarves would come out and be comfortable and relieved and happy to see their friends and that Bilbo could hug them and put them back to bed. But it seemed that the arrival of Oin and Mr Bofur had not solved as many problems as Bilbo had hoped – at least not solved them immediately – and Bilbo would just have to accept that, if he could.

“Well,” Bilbo said. Then he sat up. He considered. The room wasn’t overly cold, but he set about stirring up the fire to chase away any lingering vestiges of the winter night. Then he took all the blankets and pillows off the bed and fetched some more from one of his blanket chests. He lay on the floor again and pushed these items under the bed.

“You might as well be as comfortable as possible,” he said.

Fili didn’t say anything, but he reached out and took the blankets, and then there was a great deal of manoeuvring as he attempted to wrap them around both himself and Kili in the narrow space. At last, this task was as complete as it was likely to be, and Fili blinked at Bilbo from a sort of messy cocoon. It was all rather ridiculous, but Bilbo refrained from making this observation, and instead lay on the floor, wondering whether to try one more time to extract the dwarves or to leave them alone as requested.

“Are you warm enough?” he asked at last, as a sort of compromise.

Fili didn’t answer for a moment. Then he drew a shuddering sort of breath. “Yes,” he said.

“Is Kili all right?” Bilbo asked. “He’s not dreaming?”

“I don’t know,” Fili said. “Everything’s strange.”

Well, that was certainly true. The whole night, and the days and nights before that, had been very strange for everyone involved. Why, Bilbo thought that there had been nothing approaching normal life in Bag End since the dwarf who was not Mr Bofur had arrived in Hobbiton. Perhaps it was no wonder, then, that the little dwarves seemed so overwrought.

“Would you like me to stay here, or to go?” Bilbo asked.

He was answered with silence. But while he was trying to interpret this silence, he saw Fili’s hand extract itself from its tangle of blankets and reach out towards him. He reached his own hand under the bed in response, and found it quickly seized in a grip that seemed to him to be trembling slightly. And that, he thought, was answer enough to his question. So there he stayed, lying on the floor, wishing he had thought far enough ahead to get some blankets and pillows for himself, and wondering how many hours it was until dawn.

And however many they were, they passed slowly indeed.

****

Morning found Bilbo still lying on his back on the floor, staring up at the ceiling. He felt cold, and the only parts of him that were not aching were those that had lost feeling all together. He had hoped that, once they realised how uncomfortable it was, the dwarves might be coaxed out of their hiding place – or, at the very least, they might fall asleep and Fili might let go of his hand. But Fili, at least, had kept awake and watchful through the long night, and his grip on Bilbo never faltered. As for Kili, Bilbo could see very little of him, but the occasional sigh and murmured word between the dwarves suggested that he was wakeful, too.

The grey light that heralded the day was filtering around the edges of the curtains when the door to the room opened. Bilbo turned his head – and suppressed a groan at the pain in his neck – to see Lily towering over him, a look of stern confusion on her face.

“There you are,” she said, and then, “What in the world are you doing?”

“Keeping the dwarves company,” Bilbo said, and then, realising that there were now so many dwarves inhabiting his hobbit hole that he would need to be more specific, “Fili and Kili, I mean. They are rather frightened.”

“Kili’s frightened,” Fili muttered from under the bed. “I’m not.”

“Quite,” Bilbo said, squeezing Fili’s hand a little. “Kili has been rather frightened, and Fili has been looking after him.”

Lily frowned at him. Then she looked at the bed. Then she looked back at Bilbo. “How long have you been lying there?” she asked.

“Oh – since the world was made, I rather think,” Bilbo said. “If I’m to be honest, I’m not convinced I’d be able to stand up now even if I wanted to.”

“Hmph,” Lily said, folding her arms. “Well, I never thought I’d see a Baggins play such foolish games. You should tell your dwarves to come out and have some breakfast.”

“I will certainly take your advice into account,” Bilbo said. He found, to his surprise, that he was feeling oddly light-hearted and ridiculous. Or perhaps it was more that he was light-headed. Certainly, he was ridiculous, as Lily had indeed noted. “How is Thorin?”

“The dwarven healer has produced various interesting remedies,” Lily said. “It remains to be seen if they will help or no. I will say it is remarkable how much his body is able to bear. I have never seen a creature with such strength of constitution.”

“Oh,” Bilbo said, and then, for want of anything better to say, “Good.” He thought briefly of Thorin as he had seen him last, broad-shouldered and broad-chested even in his wasted state. Yes, the dwarf king was strong indeed. Very strong.

Lily glared down at him for another moment or two, then turned on her heel and strode out without another word. Bilbo sighed and then turned his head to the left to meet Fili’s eyes.

“What about it, then, Master Dwarf,” he said. “Do you and your brother plan to stay under there all day, as well, or will you come out and have some breakfast?”

Fili gazed at him unblinkingly for a moment. Then he turned his head away and a whispered conversation ensued. It went on for rather a long time before Fili turned back to look at him.

“Who else is here?” he asked.

Bilbo opened his mouth to reply, and then, realising that since he had spent the entire night lying on the floor of the dwarves’ bedroom, he had not the first idea who might actually be in Bag End, barring the little dwarves themselves. “I don’t know,” he said. “Should I go and look?”

Fili nodded. Bilbo waited a moment, but when Fili failed to leave go of his hand, he shook it a little.

“I shall need my hand back, Master Dwarf,” he said.

Fili immediately let go, and Bilbo began the difficult task of standing up. It took him rather longer than usual, and certain parts of his body made alarming creaking and popping sounds as he progressed. Still, eventually he was on his feet, and, after taking a few experimental steps to see if he would remain that way, he made his way out of the dwarves’ room – closing the door firmly behind him – and proceeded to take an inventory of all souls, be they dwarves or hobbits, currently inhabiting his home.

This is what he found: Lily, Oin, Dwalin and Thorin in Thorin’s room. Thorin was unconscious, but now laid out on the bed rather than in the bath, with Oin listening intently at his chest and Lily looking on. Dwalin, as was his wont, occupied a corner and glared at all and sundry.

The living room was empty, but it seemed that someone had set it in order and swept it since the night before, and the fire was crackling merrily in the grate.

And in the kitchen, Mr Bofur, Rose, and Ham Gamgee, going about preparations for breakfast. All looked up when he came in, and Mr Bofur rose to his feet and bowed.

“Ah, here’s the very hobbit,” he said. “And how are the lads?”

“I’m not quite sure,” Bilbo said. “Still upset and frightened, I think. I do apologise for last night, Mr Bofur – I’m sure they did not mean to offend you.”

“Offend?” Mr Bofur said, and laughed as though it was the greatest joke. “Well, here’s a thing! A hobbit apologising to me for the behaviour of my kinfolk! Mr Baggins, I’ve seen them behave much more poorly than that, I can tell you. And with much less reason, to boot.”

“Tea, Bilbo?” Rose asked.

“Oh – thank you, no,” Bilbo said. “I must finish something first.” And he passed on from the kitchen, and examined the rest of the hobbit hole, room by room, as well as checking the locks on all the doors and windows, before returning to the little dwarves’ room. After hesitating for a moment, he sat carefully on the floor, but could not quite bring himself to bend to look under the bed (if, indeed, he was still capable of doing such a thing at all).

“Rose, Ham, Mr Bofur, Oin, Dwalin, Lily, and your uncle,” he said in the general direction of the bed. “That is everyone. And myself, of course.”

There was a long silence, then a shuffling noise. Then, by degrees, a rather filthy young dwarf emerged from underneath the bed, trailing blankets. He turned and reached back under, and helped another, smaller and more blanket-swaddled dwarf to follow him out. Both of them sat on the floor, staring at Bilbo, their eyes looking very large in their dirt-streaked faces. Kili’s eyes looked red and sore, but he was not weeping; instead, he had a kind of dull staring look about him that did not suit him at all.

“There,” Bilbo said. “There, now. Well, we all had a bit of a fright, didn’t we?”

“Are they coming to get us, Mr Bilbo?” Kili whispered, in a tone that suggested he did not much care if they did or not.

“No-one’s coming,” Fili said. “I told you it was just Mr Bofur.” But he, too, looked anxiously at Bilbo. “No-one’s coming, are they, Mr Bilbo?”

“No, indeed,” Bilbo said. “And I am – so sorry that I didn’t come and tell you so sooner.” He tried to think how long the children must have been hiding, listening to the footsteps thudding through the hobbit hole, before Bilbo thought to tell them whose footsteps they were. Surely no more than an hour? Or perhaps an hour and a half?

But long enough, certainly. Even a few minutes was far too long to be in the grip of such dreadful fear.

“I think we might all feel better if we had a bath and some breakfast,” Bilbo said. “You both must be quite sore after spending so long under the bed – can you walk?”

After a moment’s hesitation, Fili got to his feet, and then turned to help Kili untangle himself from the blankets. Kili did as he was told and then climbed to his feet as well, and Fili took his hand and held it firmly.

“Good,” Bilbo said, feeling a little unnerved by the silence and heavy sense of apathy that seemed hung about the children. “Well. Bath first, or breakfast?”

For a moment, there was no answer. Then, Fili gave a one-sided shrug.

“Bath, then,” Bilbo said, trying to maintain at least something of brightness in his manner, though when everything he said was met with such indifference, it was no easy task. So he shepherded the little dwarves off to the bathroom, and oversaw their bathing, and worried a little – perhaps more than a little – about how quiet they were and how little reaction Kili in particular had to – well, to anything. He had been prepared for the child to be clingy and continually want to be held, for this was by now a familiar type of behaviour, especially following some kind of upset. But Kili did not seem to care one way or the other if he was being held or touched this morning. He stayed where he was put, allowed himself to be picked up and put down with no arguments, and did what he was told – and all of those things were really so far out of character that Bilbo began to be concerned indeed.

Fili, meanwhile, seemed more himself – though watchful and gloomy, and keeping hold of his brother’s hand at all times. He spoke very little, but that was not particularly unusual for him. But at one point, Bilbo returned to the bathroom with more soap to find him wiping angrily at his eyes, an activity that he left off immediately upon noticing Bilbo’s presence.

“Soap in your eyes, my boy?” Bilbo asked.

Fili shrugged. Bilbo sighed and sat down on the edge of the tub.

“You are both very tired,” he said. “But you know, it is a happy thing that happened last night. Your Mr Oin has arrived and he will help your uncle. And your Mr Bofur! Why, you have not even said hello to him yet.”

Kili did not seem to be listening. Fili, though, looked up at him, and the hopelessness in his expression took Bilbo rather aback.

“Can we go back to bed, Mr Bilbo?” he asked. “Kili’s scared.”

Bilbo blinked in surprise. “Scared?” he said. “What is he scared of? He is quite safe.”

Kili gave no indication of having heard, or of knowing he was being talked about. Fili glanced at him and then looked disconsolately down at the rather cloudy-looking water.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes he gets scared. He was really scared last night.”

“Kili?” Bilbo said.

Kili jerked a little, then looked at him.

“Are they coming to get us, Mr Bilbo?” he asked.

Well, Bilbo felt rather hopeless himself on hearing that. It seemed that the youngest of his guests was – quite confused, or only half awake, or – somehow lost in himself. Certainly Bilbo did not understand exactly what it was that was troubling Kili – perhaps it was just that he was so young, or that he had had so little uninterrupted sleep of late – but he did understand that it was quite worrying and perhaps even a little frightening to witness.

“No, my dear lad,” he said. “No-one’s going to get you. You are quite safe here, I promise.”

Kili stared at him as though he hadn’t understood what he said, then turned his face back to stare at the wall. Bilbo frowned in concern, but then realised that Fili was looking at him and quickly rearranged his features to reflect, if not cheerfulness, then at least not the worry he felt in his heart.

“Well,” he said to Fili. “Your brother is very tired. Let’s get you both something to eat.”

He extracted both dwarves from the bath, had them dry themselves off and dress, and then led them towards the kitchen. When they arrived there, they found it just as Bilbo had a half hour or so before, with Rose, Ham and Mr Bofur making conversation. And a cheerful group they made indeed, for all of the gloomier and more serious dwarves and hobbits were gathered in Thorin’s room, leaving nobody to dampen anyone’s spirits.

When Bilbo entered the room with the two little dwarves, all turned to look, and Mr Bofur rose immediately to his feet, wreathed in smiles.

“Ah, the lads,” he said. “Fili – Kili – it’s right glad I am to see you both whole and hale. Let me look at you.” And he came forward and knelt on the ground, peering first at one child then the other. But whatever he saw caused his smile to fade – though only a little – and he rose to his feet again.

“But you’ll be hungry,” he said. “Come now, lads, hop up here. And am I to get a hug from either of you, or are you too old for such trifles now?”

Fili climbed up onto the bench and hugged Mr Bofur, but he didn’t look like his heart was in it. Then he turned and helped Kili climb up. But Kili seemed not to have paid attention to the request for a hug, and when Mr Bofur hugged him, he seemed hardly to notice, but only stood quietly on the bench and did not hug back.

Mr Bofur stepped back, and now his smile had something of a determined air to it. “Well, very grown up you are indeed, young Kili,” he said. “But now, I have something for you.” And he drew from his pocket a small wooden horse, beautifully carved, and with real hair for a mane and tail. “I’ve been carrying it all winter in case I should have the chance to give it to you,” he said, holding the horse out to Kili.

Well, Bilbo felt sure that now, at least, Kili would show some sign of interest – after all, he did so love horses and ponies. But Kili glanced at the horse, and then took it when Fili nudged him in the ribs, and stood holding it loosely in his hand, as if unsure what to do with it.

“What a nice present Mr Bofur has given you,” Rose said, rather pointedly. “What do you say, Master Dwarf?”

But it was as though she had not even spoken: Kili gave no indication of having heard her, and seemed lost in thought, staring into space, clutching the horse in one hand, while Fili held on to the other. The various adults in the room exchanged worried looks, but it was Fili who spoke.

“Can we go back to bed soon?” he asked, looking at Bilbo. “Kili’s scared.”

Bilbo chewed his lip. “Well, eat some breakfast, and then bed,” he said. Rose cast him a glance, and his spread his hands helplessly. “They did not sleep all night,” he said. And in truth, he did not know what else to do to help them – what did one do with children who had suddenly retreated in this way? Bilbo, who was more used to Kili being too energetic than being too quiet, did not feel in the least able to answer that question. But food and sleep would surely help.

So they ate. Bilbo was a little worried that Kili would need to be coaxed into it, so apathetic did he seem towards everything around him, but when a plate was put in front of him he cleared it quickly enough, though mechanically and without any indication of enthusiasm or even interest in what he was eating. Fili was a little more lively, but only insofar as a dreary trickle of water is more lively than a mostly dried-up puddle. Mr Bofur, meanwhile, made cheerful conversation with Rose, but even that hobbit’s indefatigable tongue seemed a little strained by the general circumstances, and their conversation was characterised by rather more awkward silences than was usual with Rose (which is to say, more than none).

At last, though, the dwarves had both eaten enough that Bilbo was satisfied they would not starve, and – after briefly considering and then rejecting the idea of trying to cheer them up with some cake – Bilbo gave them permission to go back to bed. Even this received no enthusiasm, although Fili had asked for it multiple times now. Fili simply took Kili’s hand and led him back to their bedroom. Bilbo followed them, and when they had climbed into the bed, he fussed about them, tucking in the covers and plumping the pillows and so on, and generally trying to make himself feel as though he was doing something to help. But he was sure, quite sure that the little dwarves would feel a lot better once they had had some sleep. That was all that was needed, and then he would see some life from them again.

But in the event, Bilbo got something like life from the dwarves a lot sooner than that, though not in the way he would have wished it. For as he was rearranging the blankets around Kili, he brushed against the doll that lay on the pillow beside the little dwarf, and it fell into the gap between the bed and the wall and disappeared.

“Bother,” Bilbo muttered, leaning over to reach for it.

“No,” Kili whispered, turning his head to look. Then he said it again: “No.” And then – and then he began to speak, his voice going from a whisper to a moan and then rising rapidly into a sort of hysterical wail: “No, no, no, no, noooo, nooooo--” and so on, until the words themselves dissolved into nothing and he was making only a worldless, high-pitched sort of shrieking moan.

Well, by this time of course Bilbo had stopped reaching for the doll and started reaching for Kili instead, trying to reassure him or calm him. But Kili pushed him away, his eyes wide, fighting with the blankets and seeming to be looking at something else entirely. Since this was not entirely new behaviour – though it normally only happened when Kili was asleep – Bilbo was not as alarmed as he might have been. But when Fili, pale and miserable-looking, tried to hug his brother, murmuring quietly to him to be calm, Kili shoved him away, too, and seemed not to hear his voice at all, and that – well, that was certainly new.

“Kili,” Fili said, now beginning to look frightened rather than miserable. “Kili, I’m here. It’s me, I won’t let anyone take you.”

But Kili still fought him when he reached out, and thrashed in the blankets, and made that awful keening noise, interspersed now with choking sounds, as though he could not quite control his mouth and tongue.

“Mr Bilbo,” Fili said, having to shout to be heard over the noise of Kili, and looking at Bilbo with great alarm.

But Bilbo had no better idea what to do than Fili, and to be looked at in such a manner, as the one responsible for solving the problem, but to have no idea how, made him feel suddenly, awfully lost, and terrified, and rather like a child himself. But he could not be like a child, because a child was depending on him. Two children. So he could not be lost and terrified, and he drew himself up and was trying to think through Kili’s terrible wailing when the door burst open and Dwalin stormed through, Lily hot on his heels.

“What’s happening here?” Dwalin shouted, frowning at the scene and then leaning over Fili and reaching for Kili.

“Mr Dwalin, don’t--” Fili said, but as soon as Dwalin’s hand touched Kili’s shoulder, Kili’s fist flailed out in an ineffectual punch, and his screams redoubled, until they began to sound quite painful, a raw, hoarse sound interspersed with sobbing breaths. Dwalin drew back, looking almost as alarmed as Fili, and Bilbo suddenly thought of Kili’s illness and felt a great pang of fear in his heart.

And then Lily came through the door again – she must have left after coming in the first time, though Bilbo had not seen it – and without speaking a word she stalked over to the bed, leaned over it, and held a small glass vial under Kili’s nose. Kili’s head rolled from side to side, and Lily seized his forehead and held him still, though this must have been quite difficult with how hard he was struggling. It only took a moment or two – for Kili was heaving in great breaths of air in between his increasingly ragged screams – and then the poor little dwarf’s eyes were rolling up in his head, and he fell to the bed, limp and suddenly, blessedly silent.

The silence was rather shocking after the prolonged noise, and for a moment, no-one spoke. Bilbo saw that Oin, Mr Bofur, Ham and Rose were all standing in the hall, peering into the room with a variety of worried expressions. But it was not to these guests that his thoughts turned, but to one who had been with him so long it was almost as though he was not a guest at all any more.

Fili.

As soon as Kili’s screams died away and his eyes closed, Fili reached out and seized him by the arm, as if to assure himself that he was still there. A moment later, he pulled Kili into his arms, and rocked him backwards and forwards, hushing him and stroking his hair, though the little dwarf was dead to the world and hushing was certainly no longer required. He stared at Bilbo over Kili’s shoulder, and certainly looked a great deal more emotional than he had all morning, but not in a way that Bilbo would have wished.

“Mr Bilbo,” he whispered, a tear trickling down his cheek.

Bilbo sighed and sat down on the bed, arranging himself in such a way that he could hug Fili and Kili both – not that Kili really needed it at that moment, being asleep, but Fili did, and he was quite sure Fili would not be persuaded to part with his brother for any reason. So hug them both he did, and Fili clutched at his shirt and cried very quietly, and Bilbo felt rather like crying, too.

But after a few moments of this, Bilbo felt a heavy hand on his shoulder, and he looked up to see Dwalin looking down at them with a troubled frown. He let go of the little dwarves, and Dwalin removed his hand from Bilbo’s shoulder and transferred it to Fili.

“Fili, lad,” he said, his voice sounding deeper even than usual. “I think it is time you told us what happened in the woods.”

Chapter Text

After Dwalin made his announcement, Bilbo found himself in two minds. He certainly agreed that it would help them all to know exactly what it was that had happened to the two little dwarves – indeed, he had been wanting to know this ever since he met them, although he had largely given up hope of ever learning much more than he already knew (and, deep in his heart, he was rather afraid of the sorrow and fear that he knew the story was bound to bring). But on the other hand, Fili had already had a very upsetting day, not to mention the night before and the days preceding it. Indeed, it was a long time since he could remember Fili seeming genuinely happy, or at least not strained and anxious – perhaps not since the moment Thorin and Dwalin had first arrived at Bag End. To ask the child to recount the story now, after a night of terror and no sleep and after witnessing his brother have such a terrible turn – well, it seemed hardly fair.

“Mr Dwalin,” he murmured, when he had managed to draw Dwalin away from the dwarves’ bedside. “Do you think perhaps we should wait? At least until the poor lad has had some sleep.”

Dwalin rubbed a hand over his head, and scratched at his beard, and Bilbo saw to his surprise that he seemed uncertain, which was not a normal state of affairs at all, for though Dwalin was often placed in difficult situations, he always seemed decisive and resolute in his course of action.

“Aye,” Dwalin said. “There is no good time, Mr Baggins. I had hoped to wait for Thorin to recover his wits, but--” He shook his head. “If Kili has another fit like that one – no, we cannot wait any longer. And besides, if I know that lad he will not sleep a wink until he is sure his brother is not in any danger.”

Well, that, at least, was difficult to deny, and so Bilbo sighed and went back into the little dwarves’ bedroom. “Fili, my dear lad,” he said. “Do you feel able to tell Mr Dwalin what happened?”

Fili, who was still hugging his brother tightly to his chest, swallowed hard and straightened his back. His eyes were rather bright, but his voice was steady as he said, “Yes.” But a moment later his determined expression wavered slightly and he looked up at Bilbo. “Are you going to stay too, Mr Bilbo?”

It had not occurred to Bilbo that he might not be permitted to stay to hear the story, but of course now that he considered the idea – and the general secretiveness of dwarves, the causes of which he understood a great deal better now than he once had – it seemed obvious that Dwalin might not wish him to be present. And he – well, in some ways, he rather wished he might not have to be present, either, for it seemed to him that it would be a painful tale to tell and perhaps even more painful to hear. But on the other hand, he did not wish poor Fili to be left alone – or not alone, but with only an insensible Kili and a very stern Mr Dwalin – to have to remember all those difficult times. And in the end, his concern for Fili’s feelings overruled his concern for his own (as well it might, for as much as our hobbit had suffered watching over his little guests, they had suffered many times more, and were much more defenceless, to boot). So he looked to Dwalin, and waited to see what the answer would be, and prepared himself to argue if it was not to his liking.

But – somewhat to his surprise – no argument was required. Dwalin considered for a moment, then nodded.

“Aye,” he said. “Mr Baggins should hear it, too.” Then he turned to the rest – the whole crowd of dwarves and hobbits who stood anxious in the hall. “The rest of you can clear out.”

Mr Dwalin, then, was not the most polite of dwarves, but none seemed particularly offended by his declaration. Oin said something about needing to watch over Thorin, and Lily – after sending a stern look Bilbo’s way which he was not quite able to interpret – followed him. Ham decided to go home, and Rose and Mr Bofur went to clear up the breakfast things. Dwalin closed the door firmly behind them, and then turned and drew up the only chair in the room. Bilbo dithered for a moment about where to situate himself, and then sat down on the bed. Then, thinking of the frost on the windowpane and wishing to find a way to make Fili as comfortable as possible, he got up, stoked up the fire, and then sat down again.

“All right, laddie?” Dwalin said.

Fili nodded. He shifted his grip on Kili and wiped his nose on his arm. Then he looked at Bilbo.

It wasn’t at all clear to Bilbo why Fili was looking at him, but he nodded at him and patted his knee. “Whenever you’re ready,” he said, just for something to say.

Fili swallowed and looked down at the bed. “We--” he said. “We went to find the place. We would have found it! I would have, I knew where it was and it wasn’t that dark.” He looked up at Dwalin. “We would have found it,” he said.

“Aye, lad, I know you would,” Dwalin said. “I know you did everything you could have done, aye, and more than anyone could have expected. You’ve no cause to worry, I’ll not change my mind, whatever you tell me.”

Fili stared up at him for a moment or two, looking close to tears. Then he looked away again.

“Kili fell over,” he said. “There was – a root or something and he didn’t see because it was dark and he fell over. I tried to catch him but he fell on his hand and hurt it.” He wiped his nose on his arm again. “It got all swollen up the next day, so it was – he really hurt it.”

Bilbo resisted the urge to reach out and take Kili’s hand to check it for injury. After all, the incident had been months ago, and Kili had shown no sign of difficulties with either hand in the time he had known him, so surely the hurt had healed itself. Why he even felt the need to check was beyond him – and so he resisted, and listened on.

“He was crying,” Fili said. “I told him to be quiet, I told him, but his hand was really hurting, and he didn’t know – he didn’t know then how to be quiet when he was crying. I didn’t want to leave the path because I didn’t want us to get lost. I put my hand over his mouth, but--” He hugged Kili closer. “They must have heard already,” he whispered. “I know we shouldn’t have stayed on the path, but I didn’t want us to get lost. But then they found us. If we hadn’t stayed on the path--”

“Now, lad,” Dwalin said. “I’ve already told you you did everything you could. There’s no call to go blaming yourself over things that couldn’t have been helped. Understand?”

He said it in a very Dwalin-ish way – gruff and almost angry-sounding – but Fili looked up, and nodded, and sat up a little straighter, and the tears that had been threatening seemed to recede, so Bilbo supposed that the manner of speaking had not been as important as the the thing that was said.

“They came out of the trees,” Fili said. “We tried to run, but as soon as we got off the path the ground was all – covered in rocks and branches and brambles, and we couldn’t run very fast, and then they caught up with us. It was dwarves – the ones from before.”

Dwalin nodded as if he understood what was meant by the ones from before. Fili continued on.

“They – they picked us up,” he said. “They picked Kili up and they took him away. He was screaming and then they – I don’t know what they did, I couldn’t see, but he stopped screaming.” His mouth twisted and he hugged Kili close. “And I fought them, I tried to get back to Kili, but they – there was two of them and they knocked me down and then they tied my hands and took away all my knives. And I couldn’t see where Kili was, I couldn’t see him and I couldn’t hear him. And they said they would kill him if I made any noise.” He closed his eyes, an expression of despair on his face. “So I – I didn’t make any noise,” he whispered.

Bilbo shuffled a little closer to Fili and put an arm around him. Fili huddled in close to Bilbo’s side, and Bilbo had a brief memory of the bedraggled, furious child he had met months before who had refused to let him come closer than arm’s length, and felt a great turmoil of anger and sorrow in his soft little hobbit heart.

“Go on,” Dwalin said, but his tone was, if not gentle, then certainly not as rough as usual.

“They put us on ponies,” Fili said. “Me, anyway. They must have done with Kili as well, but I didn’t see. And – they put something over my head, a – sack or a bag, so I couldn’t see where we were going. And then – we rode for a long time. I listened and listened for Kili, or for anyone following us, but I couldn’t hear anything, and my ears were all – loud, they were ringing. So I couldn’t hear anything.”

Bilbo, who had listened to the talk of Fili being knocked down – by two adult dwarves, of all the appalling things! – suddenly began to wonder if Fili had been more badly hurt in the altercation than he had mentioned. He looked at Dwalin, but he could not tell from the thunderous look on his face whether he was having similar thoughts or was simply furious at everything else that Fili was describing. At any rate, he did not interrupt, and neither did Bilbo.

“We rode for a long time,” Fili said. “And then – we stopped and they took me off the pony and took the bag off my head. And – it was daytime, and we were still in the woods, but I didn’t know where we were. And they were dwarves – they were all dwarves, some of them – I knew some of them from Ered Luin. There were – maybe fifteen of them. And I couldn’t see Kili.” His fingers twisted in his brother’s nightshirt. “I couldn’t see him, I didn’t know what they’d done with him, and I was--” He stopped, swallowed hard, and blinked furiously. “Then one of them came over,” he said. “He crouched down in front of me and said that if I wanted to see Kili again I would need to do everything they said. But I said – that, that, I said that Uncle Thorin would come and kill them all and I – I spat at him.” Fili closed his eyes, his face a picture of despair. “I spat at him,” he whispered, rocking Kili a little. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, lad,” Dwalin said. “They got off lightly if a little spit was all they had to deal with.”

But Fili shook his head, his eyes still closed. “He was so angry,” he whispered. “He said I would be sorry and then he got up and went off and I couldn’t see him any more. And then – I heard Kili, and he was screaming.” He pressed his face into Kili’s shoulder. “I’m sorry,” he said again.

Bilbo and Dwalin exchanged looks – Bilbo’s horrified, Dwalin’s furious. Fili’s shoulders started to shake, and Bilbo hugged him closer, then pulled both dwarves entirely into his arms, for the thought of the poor children out there in the woods, of those enemy dwarves hurting Kili – Kili, of all creatures – and forcing Fili to listen – well, at that moment our hobbit could not bear not to have them as close as possible.

Fili shuddered against Bilbo’s chest, and Bilbo hugged him tight – and Kili too, of course, though Kili was still asleep, a fact for which Bilbo was very grateful – and stroked his hair and murmured in a way that he hoped was soothing.

“There, now, my dear lad,” he said. “It is over now. It is all over now.”

After a moment or two he looked up at Dwalin, who was glaring in a most ferocious manner, though since Bilbo knew that the object of that ferocity was not anyone in the room, or indeed anyone in the hobbit hole, he only found it mildly terrifying. “Mr Dwalin,” he said, “do you think that might be enough for now? Perhaps we can learn the rest another time.”

Dwalin seemed to consider this for a moment, but then he shook his head.

“Better to get it all out at once than go through this over and again,” he said. “Once we know, that’ll be the end of it.”

Bilbo was not sure he agreed, but on the other hand it was true that the idea of upsetting Fili a second time was just as distressing as the idea of continuing to upset him this time, so he supposed there wasn’t much to choose between, in the end. And now Fili’s sobs were quieting, and at last they seemed to mostly die away. Bilbo held him for a few more moments, just to be sure, then pulled away and held him at arm’s length, peering into his face. This face was blotchy and creased-looking, with red eyes and a miserable cast to it. But Fili met Bilbo’s eyes, and that was something, at least.

“I’m sorry,” Fili whispered, and then glanced at Dwalin with a look of apprehension on his face.

“Now, look here, Master Dwarf,” Bilbo said. “You have nothing to be sorry for. Absolutely nothing, do you hear me? Why, how you can even blame yourself for something you could not help in the slightest is beyond me. I can assure you, no-one else thinks you are even the tiniest bit to blame. Isn’t that right, Mr Dwalin?”

Dwalin reached out a hand, then and took Fili by the shoulder, and turned him so that they were facing each other. Fili seemed to find it difficult to look Dwalin in the eye, but Dwalin put one hand on each of his shoulders and gazed at him steadily.

“Many people bear blame in this, laddie, but you and your brother aren’t among them. I told you I was proud, and proud I am. Understand?”

Fili looked at Dwalin – only for a moment, but still, it was something – and looked away. But he nodded.

“Good,” Dwalin said. He heaved a sigh. “And then?”

Fili chewed his lip in silence for a moment. Then he seemed to square his shoulders.

“Afterwards – after that – I said I would do what they wanted, and then Kili stopped screaming,” he said. “But I could hear him crying. I asked if I could see him and they said no. But then the one – the leader – he came back and he said yes, if I was good. So – so I was good. I did everything they said, and we rode some more, but they didn’t put a bag on my head that time, so I could see, and I thought we were going south. I tried to remember where we went, but it all looked the same, and I couldn’t see Kili, so I had to keep looking to see if I could see him. And my – I couldn’t see very well because my – because I couldn’t. But I think it was south.

“When it got night time, we stopped, and then they put me down by a tree and then they brought Kili. He had a bag on his head and he was all tied up and he was crying, and he kept saying how it was dark and he was scared, and he kept calling for me, and they kept telling him to shut up. They put him down and they said I had to tell him to keep quiet or – or it would be bad. They said it would be bad for him.” Fili shifted his weight a little, as if trying to pull Kili more securely into his lap. “And I was – angry, but I couldn’t be angry at them because I had to be good. But I said he would be more quiet if they took the bag off his head, so they did. And then his face was all – he was all bruised and there was--” Fili shook his head. “And I don’t think he knew who I was at first because he kept crying for me, but then he saw who I was and I told him to be quiet, and he tried.” He looked up at Bilbo, then. “He really tried, Mr Bilbo, but it’s hard for him because he’s little and he didn’t understand.”

“Hush, now,” Bilbo said, putting his arm around the young dwarf again. “I am quite sure Kili did the very best he could, just as you did. And I am sure Mr Dwalin is proud of him, too.”

Dwalin nodded. “Aye, of the both,” he said. “You lads are of Durin’s line, there’s no mistaking that.”

This pronouncement caused Fili to sit up a little and seem less anxious. After a moment, he continued his tale.

“After that we travelled a lot, and sometimes they let me sit with Kili and sometimes they didn’t. And they didn’t put the bag on my head again, but they did put it on Kili sometimes, and then they would take him away, and if he screamed they would get angry.” He shook his head, starting to look angry himself. “They got angry if he screamed or cried or sometimes even if he said anything, and it wasn’t fair. He’s only little and he was being good, but they’d just – and sometimes I got angry with them when they were angry with Kili because – I was being good and they said if I was good they wouldn’t hurt him, but – so I got angry and then--” He trailed off, his eyes wide in his pale face.

Bilbo held his breath, not knowing whether he wanted to know what came after and then. But Dwalin leaned forward, keeping his eyes on Fili.

“Did they hurt you, lad?” he asked.

“They hurt Kili,” Fili whispered.

“Aye, I guessed that,” Dwalin said, his voice remarkably even considering the fury that flashed in his eyes. “But did they hurt you?

Fili looked away, and Bilbo supposed that was answer enough. And through all the horror and pity in his heart, he felt a great swell of anger – great enough that he surprised himself, perhaps great enough even to rival the rage of Mr Dwalin. The thought, the very thought that someone might do such a thing to his dwarves, to silly, exasperating Kili and stubborn, serious Fili! Why, if those dwarves had been before him right now, though they were armed to the teeth, he thought he would not have been the slightest bit afraid, but only quite, quite furious.

“It kept on like that for a while,” Fili said. He wasn’t looking at either of them now, and he spoke in a voice barely above a whisper. “I kept looking for a way to get Kili and to escape, but they were always watching us, and most of the time they didn’t let me sit with Kili anyway. We kept on moving all the time, and sometimes there would be new dwarves or some of the old ones would leave. And they started telling me to say things. They wanted me to learn things to say. The leader would get angry if anyone hit me, especially my face, because he said that it had to look like they were looking after me and I wanted to be with them.” He drew a breath, looking furious again. “But I didn’t,” he said, as if there was even a question.

“What did they want you to learn to say?” Bilbo asked, finding this part of the tale a little bewildering.

Fili became very still, as if frozen, staring very hard at some invisible mark on the floor. There was silence for a moment, then Dwalin shifted in his chair.

“Fili,” he said. “I’ve said I won’t think any the worse of you, and I won’t. Whatever it was, we know you were just trying to protect your brother. And you did well. He’s alive, and so are you, and that’s better than being dead because of foolish pride.”

This seemed to have no effect on Fili for a moment, but then he suddenly gasped in a breath.

“That – that Uncle Thorin – was bad and that – I was happy to have – to have new advisers,” he said, seemingly half-choking on the words. “They had – I had to keep saying it and if I said no – I couldn’t say no. And the leader – the leader would give me food, and he would say that Kili could have food too and could sit with me if I just – said the right things. So I – so I said them.” His voice trailed off into a whisper. “I said them.”

“But you didn’t mean them,” Dwalin said, not as a question, but more as some kind of reassurance.

Fili shook his head violently, and this caused Kili to stir in his arms and murmur something. Fili hugged him tight and rocked him a little. “Sh, sh,” he whispered, sounding a little tearful. “Sh, I’m here, go back to sleep.”

Apparently Kili was feeling unusually obedient that morning, for he seemed to slip almost immediately back into a deep slumber. Fili, though, was very much awake, and Bilbo felt very sorry for him, very sorry indeed.

“You didn’t mean them,” Dwalin said firmly. “I know that, and you know that, and the dwarves that made you say those things knew it, too. None of it mattered. The only thing that mattered was staying alive, and keeping your brother alive. You did well, laddie.”

Fili looked at him, then, and the look of exhaustion and misery on his face was almost more than Bilbo could bear. “If Uncle Thorin knew--” he started.

“He’d be proud of you, too,” Dwalin said, and then, when Fili opened his mouth, “Don’t argue, lad. You think I don’t know your uncle’s mind? Better than he does himself, I’ll warrant.”

Well, perhaps Fili found this convincing, and perhaps he did not, but at any rate he did what he was told and did not argue with Dwalin. Instead, he shuffled a little closer to Bilbo and took a deep breath.

“I don’t know how many days it was,” he said. “I tried to count, but I – lost track. But one night, I heard one of the dwarves say that they should just – that they should – just kill Kili, because – he was a nuisance and he was slowing them down, and he was always – snivelling.” He glowered. “They said snivelling,” he muttered, and then said something in the dwarvish language that had Dwalin raising his eyebrows. But Dwalin did not speak, and Fili continued on. “The other dwarf said that was stupid, because if they killed Kili then I wouldn’t do what they wanted any more, and the first dwarf said they could just threaten to kill me too. That was stupid, though, because the other dwarf was right, and if they’d killed Kili I would have – I would have--” He stopped, gulped a breath of air, and started again. “So even though they decided not to I knew I couldn’t wait. I thought someone would come for us, but no-one was coming and I knew that we had to get away. So I thought and thought, and I looked for how we could do it. And I waited until they let Kili sit with me overnight. They had someone watching us all the time but I was very good, and by then – by then Kili wasn’t – he wasn’t being a nuisance any more. He wasn’t – he didn’t really say anything any more and he didn’t make any noise or – he was being like – like he was today, this morning.” He paused, face twisting a little. “So they didn’t care much about watching him very carefully,” he said. “So the one who was watching us wasn’t paying much attention, but I was. I’d been paying attention to all of them, and I knew where they kept all their knives. My hands were tied, but I managed to untie Kili’s hands and then I got him to untie mine. It was hard because the knots were hard, but he did it.” He pressed a kiss to Kili’s hair. “And then I stole a knife from the dwarf that was sleeping near me. The one who was supposed to be watching was sitting by the fire with his back to me, so I crept up behind him and cut his throat.”

Bilbo felt his eyes widen to learn that the man who Fili had stabbed in the woods was not the first creature he had killed. But Dwalin did not seem affected by this at all – or rather, the effect was a much more positive one, for he nodded in satisfaction. “Aye,” he said. “It was well done.”

Fili nodded, too, seeming a little buoyed by this praise. “He didn’t make any noise, he just fell over,” he said. “So Kili and I ran. We ran all night, and we didn’t look behind us, and we ran all the next day, too. I looked at the stars to make sure we ran in a straight line, because I was scared that we’d run in a circle. And we ran a long way up a stream so they wouldn’t be able to track us. Kili got cold but I carried him, and we didn’t stop moving for--” He shook his head. “We didn’t stop moving,” he said. “Not until Mr Bilbo found us.”

“And how long was that?” Bilbo asked, still feeling a little faint from the revelation that Fili had cut his captor’s throat.

“I don’t know,” Fili said. “When did you find us?”

“Oh – early December, I think,” Bilbo said. “Or late November.”

Fili nodded. “A month, then,” he said. “Probably a month. I don’t know how long we were with the bad dwarves. And – there was a man in the woods--”

“Oh, yes, I have already told Mr Dwalin all about the man in the woods,” Bilbo said, for he had no wish to hear that story told again – though, having heard all that went before, it seemed rather less terrifying by comparison.

Fili nodded again, chewing his lip. “Then – that’s all?” he asked, looking up at Bilbo and then at Dwalin.

“Aye,” Dwalin said. “Unless you’ve something more you left out.”

Fili hesitated, then shook his head. “No,” he said. “That’s all.”

Dwalin nodded slowly. Then, to Bilbo’s surprise, he rose to his feet and knelt on the ground by the bed. Fili stared down at him doubtfully, and Dwalin raised his hand and made a fist, then struck it to his chest.

“Fili, son of Dis,” he said, his voice rumbling low. “If ever I find any one of those dwarves who hurt you and your brother, I’ll make sure there’s not enough of them left for their people to bury. I, Dwalin son of Fundin, swear to this. Will you accept my oath?”

Fili stared down at Dwalin, wide-eyed, and Dwalin looked up at him, serious and straight-backed, for all the world as if he were kneeling before a king or a great prince and not a tearful little dwarf child wearing a nightshirt and clutching his sleeping brother in his arms. But, Bilbo reminded himself, Fili was a prince, after all – and that became suddenly much clearer when Fili drew himself up and suddenly managed, nightshirt or no nightshirt, to look rather regal.

“I will,” he said, his voice breaking a little.

Dwalin nodded. “Then it is sworn,” he said. Then he rose to his feet and opened his arms. “Now come here, laddie.”

Fili half rose, struggling with the weight of his brother, and Dwalin leaned down and swept them both up in his arms as if they weighed nothing, bringing them in close to his chest and folding his arms around them. Fili made a quiet sound that might have been a sob, and pressed his face into Dwalin’s chest. Bilbo might have shed a tear or two himself – and might even have had a passing thought that being hugged by Dwalin looked really very comforting – but apart from this there was little to be heard in the room for a few moments but the crackling of the fire in the grate. At last, though, Dwalin sighed and sat down heavily on the bed (which creaked in a rather worrying fashion).

“It was well done,” he said to the dwarves in his arms – or to the one who was awake, at any rate. “I’m proud to say that I know you, Fili lad.”

Fili, face still hidden, didn’t reply to this. But Bilbo rather thought he didn’t have to.

Chapter Text

Dwalin held the two little dwarves for quite some time, but at last he set them back down upon the bed. Fili looked tearstained but a great deal less desolate than he had all morning. Kili, meanwhile, still slept soundly in his brother’s arms.

“Mr Dwalin,” Fili said, half in a whisper. “If Uncle Thorin dies, what will we do?”

Bilbo half expected Dwalin to answer this with some kind of reassurance on the state of Thorin’s health. But he did not. Instead, he sat down in his chair and considered the question for a long moment.

“We’ll mourn,” he said. “And then we’ll find a way to carry on. And whatever we do, it’ll be all of us together, understand? You’ll not be doing anything on your own, laddie. No-one’s expecting you to stand in Thorin’s boots, not until your feet are a wee bit bigger.”

Fili sat in silence for a moment, his mouth pulled tight across his face. Dwalin reached out and put a hand on his shoulder.

“All right, lad?” he said.

Fili swallowed and then nodded, and Dwalin nodded himself in response. Then he rose to his feet.

“Your uncle’s not so easy to kill,” he said. “I should know – I’ve watched enough folk try. But I’ll watch over him for you. And Mr Baggins will watch over you and your brother.”

He looked at Bilbo, then, and Bilbo could not even find it in his heart to be annoyed at the continuing presumption that he would be responsible for the two little dwarves. After all – after all, he was responsible. He had had numerous opportunities to give up the responsibility, and yet somehow he had always managed to pull them closer instead of pushing them away. And now he began to think that perhaps he did not wish to give up the responsibility as much as he had assumed. A strange thought indeed for our hobbit, always so happy in his quiet solitude! But there, we are none of us ever too old to learn new things about ourselves. So he did not argue with Dwalin, or even frown, but only nodded at him and watched him stride out of the room, then turned back to Fili.

“Come here, then,” Bilbo said, pulling back the covers. “Kili isn’t the only one who needs sleep.”

Fili shuffled across the bed on his behind, trying to hold Kili in his lap at the same time and looking altogether rather awkward. But he managed to get himself and his brother under the covers, and lay down, and then Bilbo tucked them both in.

“Do you think you will be able to sleep?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” Fili said. “I’m tired, but--” He shifted around a little, closed his eyes in an experimental manner, then opened them again. “Mr Bilbo,” he said, “what about Kili’s doll? If he wakes up he might get upset again.”

“Ah, of course,” Bilbo said, although privately he thought that it was not really the loss of the doll that had caused Kili’s frightening turn. “One moment.” He clambered over the bed to the corner and managed to squeeze his arm down into the gap, fumbling around for a little while until he managed to locate and extract the doll. It was rather dusty, and really looked quite a sorry sight – but then, it had not been new when Kili acquired it, and it had been very much loved in the days and weeks since then. He brushed the dust from it as best he could and returned it to its owner, tucking it under the covers between Kili and Fili. “There,” he said. “Will you sleep now?”

Fili looked for a moment as if he would speak again, but then his eyes slipped closed, and this time they didn’t open again. Bilbo sat beside him on the bed for some time, waiting to see if he would wake, or if anything else untoward would happen. But nothing did, and at last he felt it was safe to leave the little dwarves alone to sleep, and hopefully to feel a great deal better when they awoke. He climbed carefully off the bed, pulled the curtains shut, stoked up the fire, and crept out of the room.

The first place he went was to Thorin’s room, to see if he could be of any use. There he found Dwalin, sitting alone by Thorin’s bedside, glaring at him as if he had fallen ill purely to cause Dwalin problems. Of Oin and Lily there was no sign, but Thorin’s wound had been redressed, and a new poultice applied to his forehead, and so they could not have been long away. The dwarf king himself looked no better than before. His face seemed sunken and his skin very pale, though perhaps it was only because his hair was so dark. But one thing was certainly true: he was not better.

Bilbo sighed and drew up a chair on the other side of the bed from Dwalin. “What does Oin say?” he asked.

Dwalin grunted. “He’ll get better, or he won’t,” he said.

Bilbo wasn’t entirely sure whether this was Oin’s assessment or Dwalin’s, but since in neither case was it particularly useful, he decided not to ask. Instead, he observed Thorin in silence for a moment, then looked at Dwalin again.

“If he does die – what will really happen?” he asked. “About Fili, I mean. And the – the other dwarves, from the woods.”

Dwalin sat back in his chair and fixed Bilbo with a gaze that made him feel rather like he was a moth being impaled on a collector’s pin. He did his best not to look away or squirm like a child, and after a long, silent moment, Dwalin let out an angry-sounding sigh.

“I swore I would see those dwarves dead, and I will,” he said. “As for Fili – he will be king. But he’ll not be expected to rule, nor even to lead – not when he’s so young. We’ll fight those dwarves for him, and we’ll win. I’ll not see his birthright stolen by any dwarf.”

Bilbo nodded. Dwalin’s prediction was not exactly buoying, given that it involved the worst happening to Thorin and a very painful time for all who loved him, but it did make him feel a little better nonetheless, even though he knew Dwalin was only one dwarf and could not possibly defend Fili against all comers by himself.

But now it was Dwalin’s turn to ask a question. “Have you seen Kili screaming like that before?” he asked.

“Well – yes, a number of times,” Bilbo said. “Not – not quite exactly like that, but he screams when he has nightmares, and – waking dreams. You have seen it yourself.”

Dwalin scowled at nothing. “Waking dreams, aye,” he said.

“Oh yes,” Bilbo said, feeling as though he ought to explain. “Fili says that sometimes he dreams while he’s awake. I don’t understand it myself, and at first I thought it must be nonsense – some kind of childish misunderstanding. But, well.” He paused, considering all the things he had once thought were childish nonsense and for which he now understood the reasons. “Well, I still do not understand, but he certainly does seem to have strange turns sometimes.”

Dwalin nodded. “I’ve seen it before,” he said. “Not the same, but similar.” He shook his head. “But in such a wee lad--”

“Seen it before?” Bilbo asked. “You mean – people having waking dreams?”

“Aye, that,” Dwalin said. “And the nightmares. The screaming. Dwarves who’ve seen too much of the battlefield.” He shook his head again. “It’s not right,” he muttered. “Not for such a wee lad.”

“And is there – any way to treat it?” Bilbo asked.

Dwalin glanced at him then. “I’m no healer, Mr Baggins,” he said.

“No, of course,” Bilbo said. He wondered if they might ask Oin – or even Lily, though he had never heard of a case of waking dreams in Hobbiton. Then he was distracted from his thoughts by Dwalin rising to his feet.

“Can you watch him a moment?” he asked, nodding down at Thorin.

“Oh – of course,” Bilbo said. “Of course.”

Dwalin stalked out of the room, and Bilbo watched him go, then turned to Thorin with a sigh.

“You do still look very ill,” he said, really only for something to say, for the atmosphere in the sick room was oppressive and the quiet made it feel even more so. “It is no good, you know, Master Dwarf. You nephews need you, very much, and so I think does Mr Dwalin and most probably all of your people. Your subjects, I mean.” He paused, realising that he sounded rather reproachful, and wondering if there was some kind of punishment attached to scolding a king. But after all, he was not Bilbo’s king – rather, he was Bilbo’s guest, and quite a troublesome one at that. “Now look, I do think you should make more of an effort to get better,” he said, reaching over to touch Thorin’s brow to see whether he was fevered. But the moment his fingers brushed against Thorin’s skin, Thorin suddenly drew in a great, gasping breath, his eyelids snapping open, and then began to convulse.

Bilbo leapt to his feet, his stool overturning with a clatter, and reached out towards Thorin, though without the first idea of what to do. Thorin’s teeth were clenched, his eyes were rolling in his head, and sweat stood out in great drops on his brow. Bilbo tried to grasp one of his flailing arms in an attempt to hold him down, and narrowly avoided once more experiencing the full strength of Thorin’s fist in his face.

“Oh,” he whispered, and then opened his mouth to call for help.

But there was no need. Perhaps they had been alerted by the sound of Bilbo’s stool crashing to the ground, or perhaps Dwalin simply had a kind of preternatural ability to sense his king’s distress, but the door flew open and both Oin and Dwalin stormed in. Dwalin stared in fury at Thorin’s shuddering form, then turned to Oin and opened his mouth. But Oin laid a finger to his lips and then firmly closed the door.

“Let’s not wake the lads,” he said. “They don’t need to see this.”

“Mr Oin, what--?” Bilbo started.

“Hm? What?” Oin said, then turned to Thorin without waiting for an answer. “Aye, then the herbs are working,” he said, carefully moving the small bedside table out of reach of Thorin’s flying fists.

“And when will we know?” Dwalin asked.

“As soon as we do,” said Oin, picking up Bilbo’s stool and seating himself firmly upon it. Thorin’s convulsions had become a little less violent, so it seemed to Bilbo, and after a few moments, they had been reduced to mere shivering and twitching. “Aye, good,” Oin muttered.

“Mr Dwalin,” Bilbo said, hoping that this appeal would have more success than the one to Oin. “But he is very ill?”

Dwalin glanced at him, then fixed his gaze once more on his king. “Aye,” he said. “It’s kill or cure. Oin gave him something to get him fighting again. If he can beat it, he’ll beat the sickness, too. If not--” He closed his mouth and scowled.

“Now, lad,” Oin said. “He’s of Durin’s line. To stubborn to die, the lot of them.”

But this did not seem to give Dwalin much comfort, and he settled into his usual corner with his usual glare. Bilbo wondered how much he had slept since Thorin had fallen ill. He felt rather sorry for him – but, well, he felt rather sorry for them all, and for himself as well, whenever he had time to think about it. He found another chair to sit on, and seated himself by Thorin’s side, for he thought he owed it to the little dwarves, at least, to watch over their uncle. He did not want them to have to sit and watch him struggle with death, but if it were to become clear that death was to be the victor – well, he wanted to be able to fetch them to come and say goodbye.

And so he sat, and he watched. And after a while, he fell asleep.

****

We can hardly blame our Mr Baggins for his lapse, for he had slept not at all the night before, and been subject to quite a few shocks in the meantime. It was certainly not the best place to sleep, nor the best time, but apparently his dwarvish companions did not find it offensive enough to rouse him, for by the time he woke up, the room was full of shadow, lit only by the flickering of the fire. It took him a moment to remember where he was, for all seemed unfamiliar in the dimness. But soon, his gaze fell upon the darker mass of shadow that was Dwalin in his corner, and he saw that he, too, had succumbed to exhaustion, and drowsed with his chin on his chest. So he was not entirely made of stone, after all! Somehow, this revelation made Bilbo feel a little better.

Oin had apparently given up any pretense of keeping watch, and was stretched out on a low couch below the windowsill, snoring. Beside him on the floor lay Mr Bofur, also asleep. And so it seemed that all the adult dwarves in the hobbit hole had gather to sleep by their friend’s side, and wait to see whether he would indeed be stubborn enough to fight against whatever herb it was that Oin had given him.

Bilbo turned to the bed, hoping against hope that he would find Thorin still breathed. But he found more than that: to his surprise, he saw that Thorin’s eyes were open, and glittered dimly in the low light. His gaze seemed to be directed nowhere in particular, but when Bilbo moved, he turned his head a little and looked at him. There was a long pause, then Thorin licked his lips and frowned.

“Mr Baggins,” he murmured, his voice very low and hoarse. “Then I yet live?”

Bilbo couldn’t help but smile to hear him, not only alive but apparently in possession of at least some part of his wits, and in his relief and joy he reached out and caught up Thorin’s hand, pressing it between his own. “You do, indeed, Master Dwarf,” he said. “And very happy I am to see it.”

Thorin’s gaze slid down to his hand, where it was held between Bilbo’s, and it occurred to Bilbo that, although he had already held the dwarf king’s hand several times in his various fits of infirmity, it was possible that Thorin had not been very aware of this at the time, or even did not remember, and might feel that it was rather – well – impolite. Or at least forward. But no, forward implied that Bilbo – oh, it was all very confusing!

So Bilbo let go of Thorin’s hand, and Thorin flexed his fingers and frowned at them as though he was not quite sure what they were. Then he looked again at Bilbo, and his frown deepened.

“You’re injured,” he said. “Did something happen? The – the lads--”

It took Bilbo a moment to understand that the injury Thorin perceived was the bruise he himself had dealt – oh, it felt like many days ago now, though Bilbo’s nose still pained him – and then he was surprised that Thorin could see so well in the dark. But he shook his head, for Thorin was now looking quite concerned.

“Oh, it’s nothing – nothing,” he said. “Well – not nothing – it is rather painful, if you must know the truth, and I hope that he who dealt it will feel sorry one day, but – there is no danger, the children are well.” He thought of Kili shrieking at nothing and Fili, pale and exhausted, telling his dreadful tale. “Well, nothing bad has happened to them in the last little while, anyway,” he amended.

Thorin seemed to sag back against the pillow, then. “Mr Baggins,” he said, “you have been a true friend to my people.”

Bilbo felt a flush rise to his cheeks, though he hoped it would be invisible in the dark. “Oh, well, I could hardly do anything else,” he said. “You do all seem to need rather a lot of help!”

Thorin frowned again, at first seeming rather angry, but then simply as though he was thinking. “Aye,” he murmured. “Perhaps we do. But few are willing to give it so generously. Few have ever been willing to help the dwarves in their hour of need.”

Privately, Bilbo thought the dwarves might find more people willing to help them if they were not so secretive and suspicious and stubborn and generally exasperating. But then he remembered how foolish he had thought Fili’s insistence on being suspicious of everyone and everything, and how much more he now understood about the origins of that suspicion. Well, perhaps the dwarves had their reasons, after all – and Bilbo conceded to himself that really, he did not know enough about their history to judge one way or the other.

Thorin coughed, then, a quiet, rasping cough – but it was enough to wake Dwalin, who stumbled to his feet and over to the bed.

“You’re awake, aye?” he said, leaning over Thorin and peering into his face as if by doing so he could see how his spirit fared.

“Awake,” Thorin murmured in that hoarse voice. “And alive.”

A smile split Dwalin’s craggy face then. “Oin gave you the hare’s tongue,” he said.

Thorin let out a quiet breath. “Then I am truly alive,” he said.

“Aye, that you are,” Dwalin said, thumping Thorin’s shoulder in what Bilbo thought was a rather rough way to treat an invalid. “And I’ll not forgive you for making me sit and watch you for days on end. You owe me.”

Thorin reached up and feebly grasped his friend’s forearm. “That I do,” he murmured.

And at this, Bilbo slipped away, for he felt oddly as though he was witnessing something private – perhaps because he had so rarely seen Dwalin look happy, as he did now. And Bilbo himself felt – much lighter than he had before, to hear that apparently this cure of Oin’s was such that if it did not kill you immediately, then you were almost certain to recover. It was as though a great sense of oppressive gloom had been lifted from his shoulders – a sense of gloom that he had not been truly aware of until it was gone. And with it, he felt suddenly as though he might sleep for a week. So he looked in on the little dwarves – found them sleeping peacefully – and betook himself at last to his own bed, where he was asleep before his head even touched the pillow.

****

When Bilbo awoke, it was still dark – but this was no great surprise, for it was that time of year at which the length of the darkness far exceeds the length of the day. Not knowing what time it was, he made some attempt to go back to sleep (in case it was still the middle of the night), but, when this failed, eventually resigned himself to rousing and at least finding out whether he should still be sleeping or no. So he lit a candle, and climbed out of his bed, and thought upon how pleasant it was to feel well-rested as he put on his dressing gown and slippers.

On leaving his room, he went first to the room where the little dwarves slept, to assure himself that all was well with them. But when he peeped around the door, he found, to his consternation, that one of them was missing: though Fili still slumbered in the bed, Kili was nowhere to be seen.

Bilbo was certainly not of a mind to wake Fili and ask him where his brother was, if only because it would no doubt throw to poor child into a panic, and of course it was unlikely he would know the answer to the question. So instead, he crept into the room, got down on his knees as quietly as only a hobbit can, and peered under the bed. But there was no shadowy lump, no disheveled little dwarf hiding from imagined terrors. Bilbo stood again, took up his candle, and – telling his fluttering heart to be calm, for surely the child would not have gone far without his brother – he set off to search the hobbit hole.

The first place he visited was Thorin’s room. There he found everything peaceful and all inhabitants asleep, some on beds or couches, others on the floor, none apparently having wished to leave their king for a more comfortable resting place. Of Kili, there was no sign, and Bilbo closed the door very quietly and continued on his way.

He passed through the living room without finding any evidence of his young guest, and was engaged in searching the kitchen when he saw that the pantry door was ajar. Well, of course he immediately went to it and opened it wide, and there on the floor he found Kili, sitting in his nightshirt with his doll tucked under one arm and the horse that Bofur had carved for him in his hand. When Bilbo opened the door, Kili started in fright and scrambled backwards, and Bilbo quickly stepped back and held up his hands, having no desire for a repeat of the screaming that had accompanied Kili’s last bout of wakefulness.

“Now, Master Dwarf, don’t be scared,” he said in a low voice. “It’s me. It’s your friend, Mr Bilbo.”

Kili stared up at him, his eyes looking very big in the candlelight. Although he had slept for many hours, he did not look as well-rested as Bilbo felt, and the excitable energy that usually accompanied him seemed to still be missing. Bilbo felt his heart sink, for it seemed that Kili might still be in the mood of listless apathy that had held him in its grasp the day before.

“Mr Bilbo,” Kili said then, in a hoarse whisper. Then he held up the little wooden horse. “I found a horsie.”

Bilbo found himself smiling, then, for perhaps Kili was not quite as energetic as usual, but he certainly did seem to be improved. “So you did,” he said. “But do you not remember Mr Bofur giving it to you yesterday?”

Kili frowned and looked at the wooden horse. “Where’s Mr Bofur?” he asked. “Did he come here? Can I see him?”

Well, that at least answered Bilbo’s question. He wasn’t sure if he was concerned or relieved that the child seemed to have forgotten the day before – after all, it had not been a pleasant day for anyone, and certainly not for Kili himself. He wondered if Kili had also forgotten the hours of hiding under the bed, and the fear of cruel dwarves coming to hurt him, but if he had, then Bilbo certainly did not wish to stir those memories up again by asking about them. So he held his tongue and instead turned to other matters.

“You may see him when he wakes up,” he said. “He is asleep, as all dwarves ought to be at this hour. Especially dwarves as small as you, Master Kili! Why, what are you doing here in the pantry when you ought to be in bed?”

Kili stared up at him and rubbed at one eye with the fist that was not holding the wooden horse. “I wanted to look at my basket,” he whispered. He glanced over at the basket – two baskets, now – that stood in the corner of the pantry. Both were full of excellent provisions, but beholding did not seem to give Kili much in the way of cheer. “Mr Bilbo,” he whispered, “if the dwarves come to take me away, will they let me take my basket?”

This was enough to remove the smile from Bilbo’s face, and he opened his mouth to speak, and then thought better of it, for he thought that whatever he said next should be very carefully considered. He set his candle down on a shelf and then lowered himself to sit on the ground facing Kili. He thought for a moment, and then spoke.

“Kili,” he said, “you are with your friends and your family now. We are all here to make sure that those dwarves won’t come and take you away. So you don’t need to be frightened. You are safe here.”

Kili frowned and looked down at his hands. He made the little wooden horse trot along his knee for a few paces, but in a rather distracted way. Then he peeped up at Bilbo through his hair.

“I don’t want to go with those dwarves again,” he whispered. “They were mean and I don’t think they’ll let me take my basket.”

Bilbo found himself at a loss for an answer. After all, what answer could he give? He could assure Kili over and over that he was safe, but so far this strategy seemed not to have done much good in dislodging the fear that seemed to have taken deep root in Kili’s mind and heart. And little wonder – after all, surely Kili had surely believed himself to be safe before, when he had been with his family, and that illusion had been shattered abruptly and thoroughly. Then the alternative – to speak with him honestly, as Dwalin had to Fili when asked about what would happen if Thorin died – well, that seemed quite impossible. Fili was one thing, but Kili was so young, and if Bilbo told him that there was even the slightest possibility that those bad dwarves might come back, and if they did Bilbo was not at all sure what would happen next – no, no, he could not do that. And so the poor hobbit found himself at a loss, and simply sat and looked at his young guest and wondered how one could ever hope to keep a child safe in a world that seemed suddenly so perilous.

Kili swallowed, his eyes seeming suddenly very bright. “Mr Bilbo?” he said. “What about my basket?”

Well, Bilbo did the only thing he could think of to do: he opened his arms, and Kili scrambled forward and was quickly enfolded in them. He did not cry, but he did cling tightly to Bilbo, and Bilbo clung just as tightly back.

“I will do everything I can to make sure those dwarves never take you anywhere again,” he said. “And so will your uncle, and Mr Dwalin, and all your friends.”

“What about Fili?” Kili asked, his voice somewhat muffled by Bilbo’s shoulder.

“What about him?” Bilbo asked.

“I don’t want them to take Fili away, either,” Kili said. “I don’t like it when they take him away and I don’t know where he is.”

“Oh, my dear lad,” Bilbo said. “Neither of you will go away. You will both stay here and be warm and have as much to eat as you like. And no-one will take either of you away from the other – indeed, I think if anyone were to do so much as try they would find themselves in a great deal of trouble.”

Kili made a sort of hiccuping sound into Bilbo’s shoulder. “Can we live here with you, now, Mr Bilbo?” he asked. “I like it here.”

Bilbo felt a curious combination of pleasure at the compliment and concern at what he could answer without upsetting the child. And underneath that there was something of a secret pang, for of course Fili and Kili could not live at Bag End – not forever – and the thought of them leaving made Bilbo feel – made him feel – rather disgruntled. Though surely only because it seemed unlikely that their uncle, once recovered, would remember to treat them (and especially Fili) like children. Why, even the thought of Thorin looking after the children on his own made Bilbo feel quite annoyed! Yes, that was what it was.

“You can certainly stay here for the time being,” he said, choosing his words as carefully as possible. “After all, it’s still very cold outside, and we wouldn’t want to exacerbate your illness.”

“I’m not cold,” Kili said. “What’s zasserbate?” And then, without waiting for an answer, “Where’s Fili? I want to show him my horsie that I found.”

“He is exactly where you left him, in bed, asleep,” Bilbo said. He rose to his feet with some difficulty, given his burden. “Shall we go and find him?”

“Yes, I want to,” Kili said. And so Bilbo made his way back through the kitchen and the living room – and now he saw that the sky was lightening outside the windows, so it was not so very early, after all – to the children’s room. There he found he was just in time, for Fili was sitting up in bed with a look of alarm on his face which immediately became an expression of relief when Bilbo entered with Kili in his arms.

“Kili,” he said, and held his own arms out. He looked a great deal better than he had the day before, but there was still a tenseness about him that Bilbo found concerning. Well, Bilbo passed Kili to Fili, and Fili embraced his brother fervently and then held him out at arm’s length and peered at him.

“You’re feeling better?” he said. “You’re not supposed to go anywhere without telling me where you’re going.”

“Feeling better than what?” Kili asked, then held up his wooden horse. “I found a horsie.”

Fili looked at it. “Mr Bofur gave it to you yesterday,” he said.

“No, he didn’t,” Kili said. “I found it! I found it on the floor.” He pointed to said floor, then waved the horse at Fili, as if this somehow proved his argument.

Fili frowned at him. “But Mr Bofur--” he started, and then the door swung open, and Mr Bofur himself stood in the doorway, smiling broadly.

“My ears are burning,” he said. “Ah! Dwarflings, of all things. Well, I never.”

Both Fili and Kili started at this interruption, but while Fili relaxed as soon as he saw who it was, Kili edged behind his brother and peeped out from over his shoulder, eyes round. Mr Bofur, though, did not seem in the least offended by this.

“Well met, there, lads,” he said, sweeping a bow. “You’re looking a lot better. And it’s glad I am to see it!”

Fili managed a small smile, but Kili still hid himself away, which Bilbo thought very odd behaviour – after all, he had been saying only a few minutes ago how much he wanted to see Mr Bofur! And many times before that, ever since Mr Bofur’s name had first been spoken in Bag End. But there, Bilbo had long since grown used to the idea that children (and dwarvish children in particular) were very confusing creatures and that it would be a mistake to try too hard to understand them.

“Now then, young Fili,” Mr Bofur said, coming a little closer to the bed. “I hear you’ve been making everyone proud with how well you’ve been looking after your brother.”

Fili straightened up a little at that, apparently endeavouring to look very serious. Mr Bofur, meanwhile, winked broadly at Kili, then swept his hat off. “And I’ve a reward for you,” he said, dropping it on Fili’s head.

Fili jumped a little in surprise, and then let out a breathy sound that was almost a laugh. The hat – a very strange object that was like no head-covering Bilbo had ever seen before – was far too big for him, of course, and the brim of it came down to his nose, hiding his eyes entirely. He looked quite ridiculous – although perhaps not much more so than Mr Bofur did when he wore the same object.

Kili, meanwhile, stared at the hat in apparent fascination, then reached out and tugged on one of the flaps – or perhaps they were more like wings – which extended out from the sides. This caused Fili to take the hat off his own head and put it on his brother’s instead, where of course it fitted even less well, covering almost his entire face. Kili let out a surprised giggle, and Mr Bofur himself joined in with a hearty guffaw.

“It suits you, lad,” he said.

Kili lifted the brim of the hat and peeped out at Mr Bofur. Then, still half-hiding behind Fili, he held up the little wooden horse.

“I found a horsie,” he whispered.

“Did you, indeed?” Mr Bofur said, for all the world as if he had never seen the horse before. “That’s very clever of you. Can I see?” He took a step closer, and Kili hesitated and then held the horse out for him to inspect. Mr Bofur took it and looked at it from all angles, then nodded gravely. “Aye, it’s definitely a horsie,” he said. “A good find, that. And what’ll you name him?”

Kili frowned as if he had not considered this. “Ham,” he said after a moment. “Ham the Horsie.”

“Kili,” Fili hissed. “Ham’s not a dwarvish name.”

Kili pushed the hat back a little further so he could look at his brother. “He’s not a dwarf,” he said, taking the horse back from Mr Bofur and waving it at Fili. “He’s a horsie.”

Bofur laughed again, and then turned to Bilbo. “Well, now, Mr Baggins,” he said. “I’ve to ask you if you think the children are well enough to see their uncle, for he’s been asking for them.”

Both Fili and Kili sat up at that. Kili looked excited, but Fili looked apprehensive. It took Bilbo a moment to think why this might be, but then he remembered that the last time Fili had seen his uncle, Thorin had knocked him off his feet in the depths of his delirium. Oh, how his heart ached to remember that, and to think that the poor young dwarf had been bearing that burden all this time along with everything else that lay upon his shoulders!

“Is Uncle Thorin going to die?” Kili asked, and Fili’s face crumpled into some mixture of horror and anger.

“Sh, Kili,” he said sharply. “You’re not supposed to talk.”

Kili looked suddenly chastened and perhaps as though he might be about to cry. Bilbo, seeing that the fine emotional balance that had prevailed thus far that morning was in danger of being upset, quickly sat down on the bed and pulled Kili into his lap, hugging him tightly.

“There now, it’s all right,” he said. Kili hugged him back, and although his excitement did not return, he did not cry, and so Bilbo decided it was safe to turn his attention to Fili.

“Now, Master Fili,” he said. “I must tell you that your uncle is feeling better – Mr Oin has given him some medicine and he has regained his wits, though he is still very weak.”

A little of the strain in Fili’s face seemed to ebb away at this – but only a little.

“What is more,” Bilbo said, “he is very eager to see you, and indeed he asked after you as soon as he came back to himself. You must know, my dear lad, that what happened before was only because he did not know at all where he was or who you were.”

Bofur had begun to look rather puzzled, and Bilbo presumed that no-one had yet told him the full tale of what had happened since Thorin had fallen ill. But Bofur was not Bilbo’s concern – it was Fili he wished to reassure.

This same Fili was now engaged in chewing his lip and twisting his hands together in his lap. “Have you told him about – what I told you before?” he asked, lowering his voice to a whisper and glancing at Bofur.

And now Bilbo saw that there was yet another level to Fili’s apprehension, and his heart became even sorer. “Not yet,” he said. “He is still not very well. But when we do tell him, I can assure you that he will be very proud of you, Fili. Very proud indeed.”

“Why is Uncle Thorin proud of Fili?” Kili whispered.

“Because he saved you from the cruel dwarves and looked after you while you were in the woods,” Bilbo said.

“Oh,” Kili said. “Yes, Fili beat all the bad dwarves and killed them and then we were in the woods but then we came here and it’s nice here.” He nodded, as if satisfied. “Fili’s the best at finding the way, he found the way and he beat all the bad dwarves, and he’s as good as Uncle Thorin except he’s not as tall.”

Fili, despite his apprehension, seemed unable to keep a solemn demeanour at this. He smiled a little and even looked rather proud, and Bilbo hugged Kili a little tighter in gratitude – for somehow, Kili seemed to have a talent for saying exactly the right thing to make his brother feel better, even when he didn’t know that Fili was feeling bad in the first place.

“Then are you ready to see him?” Bilbo asked Fili.

Fili hesitated, then nodded. He looked at Mr Bofur, then back at Bilbo. “Is he really better?” he asked.

“He’s a way to go yet, lad,” Bofur said. “But he’s turned the corner, so Oin says.”

Bilbo stood up, then, taking Kili with him, and held out his hand to Fili. Fili clambered off the bed and took it, though his face was not without trepidation.

Mr Bofur looked very pleased. “Ah, it’ll be good for him to see them,” he said. “He’s been asking for them since he woke this morning.”

“And good for them to see him, as well, I don’t doubt,” Bilbo said. “And good for me, too, I think.”

For when he came to think about it, he had quite a number of things he wished to discuss with Thorin Oakenshield.